We are experiencing an unprecedented crisis of trust – or a lack thereof – on a global scale.

We don’t have to look far to notice the effects: political polarization, nationalism, truth bending Twitter rants from the leader of the free-world, fake news, corporate scandals, celebrity tax evasion, and the list goes on.

Fear is taking its hold with serious destabilizing effects across our most vital institutions.

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual study of over 33,000 respondents in 28 countries, “The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012.”

What’s more and maybe most startling, only 15% of those surveyed ‘believe the present system is working’, with 53% believing the system is broken.

This lack of trust has permeated the workplace, to no surprise.  According to the same Edelman report, analyzed by Fast Company (which quotes my old boss Christopher Hannegan – way to go Christopher!), one in three people don’t trust their employer.

The statistics are bleak with the greatest gaps between importance and performance in building leadership trust coming in the areas of integrity and engagement.

So what is a leader to do?  We must adopt a 21st-century view of leadership and by doing so embrace three key mindset shifts.

First, we must recognize that most employees don’t adhere to the outdated top-down, authoritarian model of leadership.  No longer are employees blindly obedient to the command and control whims of their employer.  Loyalty in the workplace has to be earned – by employers and employees.

Second, being a 21st-century leader requires merit.  The ability of a leader matters and it’s not just about hitting quarterly goals, it’s equally, if not more about leading people  Nailing KPI’s is a short-term measure of success, ignore how you show up as a leader to your people  and inevitably business performance will suffer.  Formal HR processes might not reward leadership ability, but the informal forces within the organization will enforce a harsh meritocracy.

Third, we have to prioritize trust in the workplace and place it on the same plane as financial performance, shareholder value and customer satisfaction.  Management challenges like employee engagement, change management, innovation, workplace culture, attracting and retaining top talent, even growing revenue and increasing profits – they all start with trust.

With trust levels bottoming out, here are 10 imperatives that all 21st-century leaders must adopt if we are to navigate an uncertain future and build, run, grow and lead businesses that matter.

  1. Trust is the most valuable commodity in the workplace.  Without trust, the system grinds to a halt.  The hierarchy crumbles.  Nothing gets done (at least not well) and nothing changes.  Once trust is gone, it’s extremely hard(and costly) to get it back.  An organization without trust is like an engine without oil.  This importance of trust is only going to increase as more employees join ranks who have grown up with instant access to information and demand transparency.  Individually, trust is influence and influence is one of the most critical assets of a leader.
  2. Listen.  Especially true for new leaders, but equally important regardless of time spent on the job.  For many leaders, the first instinct is to jump in, take charge, solve problems and generally show everyone why they’re the leader.  By listening, we defer our authority to those around us – who, in most cases, have more intimate knowledge of what’s happening and why.  Ceding the floor to the team shows that there’s trust in them, and we all know it is easier to trust someone when we know they trust us.

    Almost as important to listening, is what done with the information that’s gathered.  We’ve all heard the phase, ‘don’t shoot the messenger’.  When bad news is given, resist the temptation to react – blaming won’t fix the problem, but it will ensure that we soon won’t be getting the truth.

  3. Actions speak louder than words.  As a leader, what is said is observed carefully, what is done gets mimicked.  Espousing lofty goals, a grandiose vision, and benefits for all is great (if they’re realistic) – but skipping the meetings, showing up late, spending more time on devices than listening or engaging – it sends the message that the effort and the people involved aren’t actually all that important.  In fact, that lack of presence calls into question motives, and most people will assume a checked out leader’s involvement isn’t due to her support, but rather it is a puppet-ing pf someone else’s agenda and priorities.  Which leads to the next reminder…
  4. Champion goals aligned to values. Don’t sign up for things you don’t believe in or have no interest in.  Sure, we’re all asked to do things that we might not agree with or want to do in service of our employers, but as leaders we have an obligation to speak up when these conflicts arise.  If we’re in disagreement with what we’re being asked to do, we need to voice our concerns and push for changes.  Many leaders might pass the buck, tapping someone else to do what we won’t.  Having the courage to speak up when we’re in disagreement is a hallmark of a great leader – especially when those disagreements are with those who have the power to influence – our jobs, careers and lives.
  5. Commitments must be honored.  In other words, don’t make promises you can’t keep.  Do what you say you’re going to do and hold others accountable for doing the same. Employees are bombarded with empty promises – on the job and off.  Nothing will erode trust faster than promises gone unfulfilled, or worse yet, ignored.

    Accountability, both up the chain and down, is paramount.  But as this HBR article points out, accountability is more than “taking the blame when things go wrong”.  It starts with setting clear expectations, ensuring there’s a clear capability to get the job done, establishing clear, measurable, objective targets, engaging in open and honest feedback and finally, establishing clear consequences (including rewards for a job well done).

  6. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  You and your team will achieve more together than you ever could by working independently.  By galvanizing a strong team-based approach by recognizing the contributions of all the members of the team, not just themselves or their direct reports, a leader can inspire and motivate a team to achieve more.
  7. Vulnerability is strength.  Leaders aren’t superheroes. Titles or the number of zeros in our paycheck don’t make us better than anyone else. In fact, some will judge us more harshly by virtue of being the leader – making assumptions of greed, hunger for power and control, or insecurity. Acknowledging our own errors and making sure they’re known will create transparency. We’re all human, being wrong every once in awhile is expected, but play it like we’re never wrong and we’ll soon find fewer followers.
  8. Care about the experience of those working for/with you.  If team members aren’t engaged, aren’t performing well or are dissatisfied then there’s something wrong with how they’re being led. A recent Gallup report and Fast Company analysis pegged poor leadership communication as the reason many employees are disengaged in their work.

    Communication is just one important factor in ensuring the success of our teams, in serving their needs first. This is called servant leadership, putting the team ahead of any self-interest or personal glory. This is opposed to how many poor leaders lead, by fear. Leadership power can be wielded like a club and the results will be equally as brutal – leaving a messy and painful wake.

  9. People can smell BS a mile away.  Don’t underestimate the savvy of those you lead or whom you are asking to follow you.  Your hidden agenda isn’t so hidden.  The fact you only took this job so you’d be well positioned for your next job isn’t a secret.  The currying of favor to that senior executive isn’t just between you and she.  I’m not saying all leaders harbor some sinister Machiavellian scheme, but if you do – beware.