Trust and the Behavior of Leaders: A Simple Pattern

Trust and the Behavior of Leaders: A Simple Pattern

One doesn’t need poll data today to be confident of this: public trust in government and other social institutions is low. More anecdotally, we see how quickly the slow progress of building public trust can be demolished by a single mistake.

Thomas J. Watson, former CEO of IBM, expressed the fragility of trust very succinctly:

The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy.

We have our own experience with how this works. Over the course of many events, and considerable time, we come to trust a colleague, or a friend or a beloved who becomes a spouse. The pattern of dependability, truthfulness and/or loyalty exhibited in multiple trials at last becomes the thing we expect of that now trusted person.

The key to building trust, Mr. Watson observed, is identification. In his commercially oriented words:

The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.

The identification of similarities is a conversational art; the conversion of those similarities into trust a matter of behavior. Good conversationalists ask questions until they find a similarity that can fuel a pleasant bit of dialog. Good salespeople leverage those casual similarities into relationships . . . and sales.

If the salesperson/customer relationship is focused on an immediate sale, the relationship’s threads may be thin and artificial. If that relationship will involve multiple encounters over time, however, the challenge is to convert those similarities into a solid and enduring bond of trust. That means establishing and maintaining a pattern of trustworthy behavior.

No one event determines our trust. It is the pattern that matters. And because the pattern is the foundation of trust, a single event may be enough to undermine it. One aberrant act can raise questions about the reality of the pattern, prompting doubt and suspicion to soar with a vengeance. The more often we have experienced betrayal in the past, the more likely one deviation from the expected pattern will destroy the bond of trust.

Elected public office is more like those longer-term business relationships than the quick sale. The pattern of campaign pronouncements and public policy actions, personal stories and personal revelations, is the foundation on which the public’s trust will be built, for better or worse. No one speech or decision will cement the public’s trust in us. One bad decision or impolitic revelation may be enough to destroy it.

Each elected official has her or his cadre of diehard supporters, those who believe in us no matter what the evidence. But for most of us, their numbers are relatively few. For the rest, the trust we have earned is no stronger than an early December ice sheet on a Michigan lake; just one misstep is enough to plunge us through to the chilly waters of public doubt.

Without trust, we can accomplish little. Our system of government operates under various adaptations of democratic principles. We need the trust of the people (or at least enough of the people) to sustain our efforts in any policy domain.

So we emphasis our similarities. We talk about our common ties to schools, or neighborhoods, or activities; to faith, or sports, or hunting. We note with shared wonder the revelatory moments of parenting or grandparenting. We put words to thoughts, hopes and fears that we share with the voters whose support we crave.

This is the political practice of those conversational arts that create the opportunity to build relationships of trust.

But all of our artistry will mean nothing if the pattern of our behavior fails to match our rhetoric. Our personal conduct as well as our professional actions will matter, because the public’s trust is in our pattern of behavior, not just in our words.

Securing and holding the public trust is a profoundly challenging enterprise. In this time, the challenge is even greater than normal. A large percentage of Americans have felt, recently or in the recent past, that they have been betrayed by those who have asked for their trust. The voices of doubt and suspicion are loud in our collective ears.

If we would lead, we must be trusted. If we would be trusted, we must show ourselves worthy of trust. In all things. All the time.

It’s a simple pattern, really. It just takes a lifetime to complete it.