Communication, Action and Trust

I was in a meeting recently where the topics of trust, communication and action were being discussed. The conversation left me thinking about their interconnectivity.

The more I study trust, from an interpersonal and organizational standpoint, the more I see a deep connection between trust and communication. Communication is the thread that enables leaders to create a culture of trust within their organization.  Once trust is established, leaders can achieve their goals more effectively with the full support of their team.

But communication is not just about words. Communication is more than a writing and speaking skill. Communication is a relational dynamic. It is a medium for the transfer of trust between people. Contrary to most of our beliefs, communication does not begin with us. Good communication begins with understanding your audience - the other party. We must know their language and their point of view. Each person with whom we interact has a different starting point in a relationship with us and a differing degree of trust. Without that context, our best intentions get distorted.

For communication to build trust - our actions must match our words. When actions match words, we become authentic to our audience and trust can form. If our actions are inconsistent with our words, a bond of trust cannot be built. Rhetoric without action builds cynicism and our words ring hollow. 

Here are 3 considerations of the connection between communication, action and trust:

  1. Authentic communication with people in leadership roles has one of the strongest effects on a company’s trust climate. This isn’t just limited to the CEO (though they often will get all the blame if communication is poor). Each member of the leadership team has an obligation to build a climate of trust. If I believe what you say and your actions back up your words, I can trust you. If you make a promise and fail to deliver, I cannot trust you, no matter how good the message sounds.  And it’s not the big messages that destroy leader credibility, it’s the 1000’s of little messages and unkept promises day-to-day that erode our ability to trust.  
  2. When communication channels begin to deteriorate, misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound and a climate of mistrust sets in. People want their leaders to communicate the strategic issues - the ‘big picture’ direction.  Nothing rots morale and commitment faster than a leader who cannot speak their vision. But they also want to hear the routine from their leader - it creates comfort when every piece of news is not an issue to be solved or a new strategic direction. Of equal importance, we must build this same bond with our peers and our subordinates. I once heard a leader get upset at a young man because the leader felt the young man was disrespectful for asking a hard question - but the leader had never invested in meaningful communication nor any specific action with the young man to earn the slightest amount of trust. The leader simply “expected” respect and trust that had never been earned.
  3. The leader’s ability to listen has strong effect on employees’ trust and organizational commitment. Listen first and speak last is an important rule of leadership. By listening first, we simply acknowledge the other person’s point of view without passing judgement. Speaking last will also help keep our emotions in check. If someone disappoints you at work over an assignment or task, try beginning by simply asking “can you tell me more about ________, I want to understand.” This level of adult behavior will often lead to deeper insight and understanding.

Leaders too often talk about having trust in others, rather than building trust. Trust is something that must be earned - and that’s true in both directions. Trust is earned every hour of every day - when we show up, our level of engagement, our genuine concern for others, our doing our homework ahead of meetings so we show we are invested, our helping a peer finish a task, following through, doing our fair share, being there when others go home. 

Trust is not something that today’s business leaders can take for granted, because both internal workforces and external publics are increasingly cynical.  Often, I hear leaders speaking about who they trust on their team.  The bigger question is “Does their team trust them as a leader?”  The method of our communication - the tool we use each day to build connections with other people - is the tool for cultivating trust. Our words speak our intent. Our actions speak our commitment. Together, they define whether or not we are worthy of trust. I see this in companies that acquire other firms and simply assume the workforce being acquired is excited for the transaction. If we really expect others to follow us, they must feel safe in letting go of what they already know because their belief in what we will do next is so powerful. And that belief, that trust, is earned because our actions and or words build a bond of credibility.

The more powerful you are, the more your words impact other people - and the more responsibility you have to ensure your actions and words build trust. If you don’t, you will ruin yourself, you will harm others, and your organization will never achieve all that is possible.