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Building trust as leader

FOLLOWING my article last month, there has been some excitement around the topic that I raised on staying informed as a leader (Ref https://www.theindependent.co.zw/2022/04/29/leadership-and-staying-informed/).

As a follow up, I want to look at building trust, which is a key ingredient in the leadership process. People will not follow a leader they do not trust. Related to last week’s article, they will also strive to hide information and weaknesses from the same leader, if there is a deficit of trust.

 Why trust is important
Without trust there can be no social contract between the leader and the led. This statement is often mentioned in the context of national politics, particularly in our region, but it equally applies to a corporate organisation, a church or any other entity.

Given the excitement around the economy and the recently announced measures and reactions from all corners, I am tempted to expand that statement, in that very context of national politics with a specific reference to our own nation, but that would change the entire focus and direction of the piece.

Trust when in leadership positions is vital, primarily due to the differences between leadership and management. A leader needs the led, such as employees to support and follow without too much coercion. A few examples:

Selling a vision
Leaders sell the vision of the organisation they run and for this to succeed there must be buy-in from the shop floor to senior management.

Oftentimes, you find employees are not familiar with the vision of their organisation and naturally it means that their actions will be unlikely in the furtherance of the vision.

However, if staff know the vision, and they support it, it means their actions are always informed by it. This would imply increased productivity because the staff are constantly reviewing themselves ensuring that they are aligning to the overall objective of the organisation.

This reduces the need for constant monitoring. Of course, I am assuming that the employees would be reasonable and not unnecessarily want to, for lack of a better word, “sabotage” the organisation.

A leader will not be able to convince their team to support their vision, which should be in sync with the organisation’s vision, if they are not trusted.

Distrust will result in questioning of the leader and thus disengagement from the team from pushing the vision. The team will only stay in the organisation for the furtherance of their own selfish agenda, and a salary of course, if it is in a corporate set-up.

Surmounting challenges
Sometimes, an organisation can go through a rough patch, and if trust is lacking the team will quickly disengage and or “jump ship”. Some of the rough patches will be surmountable, if the entire team pulls together in the same direction.

This is closely related in convincing the team to follow a vision. With trust in the team and organisation, a leader will have better chances of convincing their team to be patient and make a few sacrifices, usually for a brief period until the entity can navigate out of the tough situation.

A team that trusts its leader, after buying into the vision will be efficient. Unnecessary wastages, which will almost always be known by the team, will be eliminated.

As per the iceberg of ignorance I touched on in the earlier referenced article, the leader is unlikely to be aware of the inefficiencies. It will take the team on the ground to voluntarily step up and raise concern or even adjust their own processes and behaviours to improve efficiency.

This will have an obvious impact on the profitability if it is in a corporate organisation. In other set-ups, other than profit-making entities, the positive impact will be on whatever output is produced by the organisation as well cost reduction.

A team that trusts its leaders will also put in extra effort freely, without excessive pressure, and sometimes with no expectation of a reward. A good leader should, however, be able to recognise such scenarios and step in with a reward, which need not always be financial.

Ethical behaviour
Another indirect impact is on the ethics of the team. My personal view is one should always stick to the principle of ethics, integrity and good governance regardless of what they assume their leader does.

As readers may be aware, the fraud triangle lists rationalisation, as one of the three elements required for one to perpetrate fraud. This rationalisation can be translated to justification, this is where employees would argue that if the leadership is corrupt, why should they not “help themselves” to whatever resources they can access in their own sphere of influence.

Usually, the untrusted leadership would be perceived to be corrupt and thus employees that do not subscribe to their own strong ethical code will likely choose to join in on the corruption.

In that case, the corruption becomes real, although it started off as a perception. Other team members might not go as far as to steal from the organisation but will also choose to disengage and start to do other non-organisation related activities on the organisation’s time.

 Improving trust
I have touched briefly on a few examples of why trust is important and I would like to highlight a few points on a few initiatives that leaders can employ within their team to improve trust.

 Ethical behaviour
This one goes without saying! The team is always watching and if their leader lacks ethics then they will not be trusted. As highlighted above, this provides the moral justification for those that would be on the fence in terms of choosing to be ethical or not.

Leaders must always act with integrity all the time. I find that sometimes there is blurring of professional and personal boundaries with analysis of decisions leaders make outside the confines of the profession. This means a leader must always watch what they do.

A leader must be committed to the organisation, and this should never be in question. I have read some publications, which say that in a corporate set-up, leaders should always be the first to arrive at work and the last to leave.

I do not believe that is the only way to show commitment, therefore, one must find what works depending on the nature of the entity they lead and the composition of their team.

The led will take a cue from their leader in terms of how committed they should be. An uncommitted leader will be indirectly communicating a negative message and their team will lose trust in them.

A leader must always communicate. I wrote at length on this topic in another publication a few months ago so I will not go into too much detail.

In summary though, I will say that information vacuums create room from false rumours. Due to our nature as people, we are inclined to look for and believe negative news.

Apparently, this is hard wired into brains and is part of survival instincts as you should identify threats quickly and protect yourself. Leaders should communicate with their teams honestly but of course considering confidentiality concerns. This will create trust in the teams.

This one is rather controversial and unsettles many leaders. The perception is that leaders are made of steel and never show their vulnerabilities. Some studies seem to suggest that this notion is fast being dispelled and that we need to express our vulnerabilities to the team and that will eventually foster trust. I will not conclude in terms of what I think but will write about it from my own perspective soon.

Without trust a leader cannot fully carry out their mandate as they often grapple with underlying issues. Each statement the leader utters is taken with a pinch of salt. Each strategy is undermined and some counter proposals are done.

This will drain the team and the leader with both parties focussing on the non-core issues instead of what really requires attention. The end result is reduced performance of the team, the leader and their organisation.

  • Mavengere is the technical director at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Zimbabwe (Icaz), which is the largest and longest standing PAO in Zimbabwe, having been established on January 11, 1918, and is a body corporate incorporated under the Chartered Accountants Act [Chapter 27:02]. Icaz provides leadership on the development, promotion, and improvement of the accountancy profession focusing in the areas of accounting education, assurance, good governance practices and leadership and organisational excellence. — technical@icaz.org.zw or twitter: @OwenMavengere. 

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