Four Ways Women Lead That Can Disrupt Our Trust Crisis

06/27/2017 01:40 pm ET

Every day, when our phones vibrate with the latest breaking news, we cringe before glancing down at the screens. We live in a world where each side of the political spectrum reports different “truths.” There is a revolving door of revelations about impropriety in the government, past and present. We hear “facts” that are – or could be – merely opinions.

So is it any surprise that trust in government and the media has fallen to an average of 37 percent and 35 percent, respectively, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer? That’s right. Trust in the enduring institutions that we used to hold so sacred is crumbling to rubble. Tensions and resentments are running high. What can we believe? Who can we trust? We can surely still trust our organizations, right?

Wrong. According to Edelman, only half the general population trusts business institutions and the credibility of CEOs fell by 12 points this year to 37 percent! In a survey conducted by Interaction Associates, people were asked to rate the statement “Employees have a high level of trust in management and the organization.” Only 4 in 10 agreed that it described their organization well. Less than 45 percent agreed with the statement “My organization has effective leadership,” and less than 40 percent said they feel safe communicating their ideas and opinions with leadership.

From the time of the 2016 presidential election and inauguration, companies have tried to shore up their walls to shield their organizations and cultures against the populist, xenophobic toxicity that’s washing over our country and the world. Facebook, Google, Netflix and LinkedIn were among 15 companies taking a strong stand against Trump’s immigration ban. Disney, Tesla, Facebook and Starbucks made statements decrying the administration’s decision to exit the Paris climate accord. These and other companies made clear that such decisions run against their company’s values. They understand that this tide left uncontrolled will erode trust and therefore take away the resources companies need to be competitive: a diversity of human beings working together, sharing ideas and making tomorrow’s next blockbuster product or service.

But is this enough? The falling trust in organizations is troubling. It suggests that a much greater effort needs to be made internally to develop a culture-based, all pervasive, shared belief that “we all matter.” In an environment where trust is low, it isn’t easy to restore. It isn’t done with a town hall meeting or giving out company-branded SWAG; it is a person-to-person, company wide nurturing of relationships. Leaders have a critical role to play in creating an intricate woven network of trust among their people. They need to understand how to create a culture of trust in their organization; and organizations need to reward leadership that builds trust. Fortunately, we have examples of how to do this, and they come from women.

Shared responsibility, treating others as equals, and avoiding the traps of hierarchy, are keys to stimulating and protecting the creative energy of the group AND engendering trust. It’s a formula used by women leaders who have achieved success for and within their companies. Behavioral research that defined a unique success profile of c-suite level executive women describes leadership competencies that blend female-associated traits into traditional leadership characteristics. Four of these traits are particularly effective trust builders.

1. Empathy

Empathy allows leaders to relate to others. By being empathetic, successful leaders build emotional connections with their employees; and help establish emotional bonds among them, creating a sense of teamwork and belonging. This sense of community, where people feel allied with others to pursue a collective goal, creates psychological safety and motivation for people to put forth their ideas. Empathetic leaders build teams and facilitate information sharing, both necessary components of leading and managing change.

2. Self-awareness

Self-aware leaders understand how they are being perceived; and therefore they know how to modify their behavior so that others can relate to them and engage with them. By being transparent and authentic with emotional responses, leaders give others a real sense of where they stand; and, this in turn builds trust.

3. Inclusiveness

Collaborative leaders share power and information with their team, engaging them in problem solving and decision making that goes beyond gathering input and getting buy-in to move an agenda forward. Leaders come to the table with their teams to collaboratively figure out what is the best solution; not to automatically assume that they have the best answer. This involvement creates transparency and reassurance, two important building blocks of trust.

4. Having an egalitarian mindset

In order to put people at ease, successful women leaders do a variety of things that diminish hierarchy and the boundaries it creates. They work to establish a common ground between themselves and others in the organization, providing a platform to have casual conversation about mutual interests and create rapport. These leaders build trust by working to be relate-able and approachable, and by demonstrating that they do not see themselves as superior to others.

An additional study that asked employees to choose the top actions their leaders can take to build trust corroborates the women’s leadership research. It showed that one in three want their leaders to ask for their input when making decisions (inclusiveness); while one in four pick indicators of empathy: “help us work through change,” “show that you understand my perspective,” and “give me an inspiring shared purpose.”

If leaders in our organizations demonstrate empathy, self-awareness, inclusiveness and an egalitarian mindset, we can disassemble the trust crisis within our walls. Perhaps successful organizations that engender trust can even serve as models for our other institutions?

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