Competition is a healthy and fundamental part of leadership. It ignites the fire that pushes us to become top contenders in our respective industries, but the urge to be better doesn’t stop there. For many leaders, the most insistent competition happens within ourselves.
What measures our success? Performance? Net worth? I would agree that both of these are significant, but I believe the most significant precondition to success is our reputation. But here’s what many leaders get wrong about their reputation: The opinions that matter the most aren’t from other bigwigs but from your own employees.
You might be thinking that you’re well-liked around the office. That’s good and all, but would your employees say they trust you? There’s a big difference between being liked and being trusted, especially when you hold a position of power, and the distinction heavily influences the success of your workforce. Research from Harvard Business Review found that employees at companies where trust is high report having 106% more energy in the office, 74% lower stress levels, 76% more engagement, and 50% higher productivity than those at low-trust organizations.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the point. When employees trust you to have their backs, they become risk-takers. If turnover happens, they trust you will bridge the gaps and not put an unmanageable amount of work on their plates. But before I talk about how to build and maintain trust, it’s important to understand what workplace trust is.
What trust means in business
Trust doesn’t translate to friendship. No employee expects to be best friends with their boss and vice versa. Instead, I believe that workplace trust meets two criteria: Everyone in the office is committed to the culture and success of the company, and all team members hold and respect that belief unless proven otherwise.
This sounds like the norm, I know. But it’s not. In fact, for a lot of companies, this is the exception rather than the standard. And it creates a toxic cycle that pins everyone against each other. Employees who take advantage of company time and flexibility mold cynical leaders, while leaders who believe that playing the “bad cop” is how to keep employees in line. Both breach your ability to achieve a high-trust culture.
Here’s what leaders must do to stop the cycle.
Your actions should speak louder than your words
Our values influence how we navigate the world. If our actions don’t reflect these values, or people discover we aren’t who we claim to be, it destroys our trustworthiness. If you claim to be a patient leader but steamroll your employees, you’ll quickly deteriorate the trust of your team. The same will happen if you say you prioritize your employees’ emotional well-being but then get visibly upset when they use their PTO.
These are just a few examples, but they both speak to the importance of being who you say you are. Be open with your team about your values, but then you have to make sure you stick to them. This is how employees will judge your leadership ability. If you hold to your values, you’ll strengthen trust over time. This isn’t to say we must always be perfect (we’re human, after all). The humility of admitting when you’re aware that your actions and words don’t match up makes all the difference in a culture of trust.
Create a safe space to fail
Part of running a successful organization is building a team of innovative risk-takers. All of your employees are unique, which means they all bring a distinct skill set to your company. Leaders must not only acknowledge this potential but also do whatever they can to nurture it. This means inviting your team to explore their ideas.
But trials often end in errors. If you empower employees to take creative liberty, you must also allow them a safe space to fail. If you don’t, they’ll likely never step up to the plate again. It’s okay to work through the failure and determine what went wrong, but you must remain an ally and support them so they can grow from their missteps.
If you struggle to be candid with anyone in your life because you’re afraid of how they’ll react, it’s likely because you don’t trust them, and you haven’t earned their trust either. With that in mind, if no one on your team has ever come to you with open, honest feedback, it’s not because you’re perfect, it’s because your employees don’t trust you enough to be candid with you.
People look to you for feedback and guidance because your expertise is pertinent to their professional development. But leaders also have a lot to learn from their employees as well. Invite feedback into your organization, whether that’s through an anonymous suggestion box, one-on-ones, or through brainstorming meetings. Employees trust those willing to give them feedback, especially if it’s difficult feedback they know others wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing. In the same vein, employees who trust their leaders will offer that same feedback back to them, knowing that it will be taken in earnest.
There’s nothing more valuable in leadership than your trustworthiness. But leaders must keep in mind that trust is something that’s earned, not presumed. If your goal is to build a legacy in your industry, you must start by engendering a culture built on trust. If you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything.
Brian Berner is head of N.A. Advertising Sales at Spotify.