Nine-year-old third base player, Juan Miguel, fielded a ground ball and tried to tag a runner going from second to third base. The umpire, Laura Benson, called the runner out, but young Juan immediately ran to her side and said, “Ma’am, I didn’t tag the runner.” Umpire Benson reversed herself, sent the runner to third base, and Juan’s coach gave him the game ball for his honesty.

Two weeks later, Laura Benson was again the umpire, and Juan was playing shortstop when a similar play occurred. This time Benson ruled that Tanner had missed the tag on a runner going to third base, and she called the runner safe. Juan looked at Benson and, without saying a word, tossed the ball to the pitcher and returned to his position.

Benson sensed something was wrong. “Did you tag the runner?” she asked Juan. “Yes,” he replied. Benson then called the runner out. The opposing coaches protested until she explained what had happened two weeks earlier. “If a kid is that honest,” she said, “I have to give it to him.”

A leader’s track record and reputation are the underlying “gold standard” of their trust currency. Positive actions increase their trust account balance. Negative actions decrease trust and quickly runs a leader’s trust account into red ink.

Trust is based on behavior, not words. What we do overpowers what we say. In his research for The Trifecta of Trust: The Proven Formula for Building and Restoring Trust, Joe Folkman discovered the main factors leading to loss of trust are damaged relationships, saying one thing and doing another, claiming expertise without the knowledge, the one-person show, resisting and rejecting feedback, and the pushy driver for results.

Often untrusted leaders are the last to know it. Joe found raters are 3.2 times better at predicting a leader’s trust levels than the leader is him or herself. Leaders who overrated their trust effectiveness had worse relationships, lower collaboration, and communications. They were seen as less technically skilled, poorer problem solvers, and less able to develop others.

In a Working Knowledge post, Harvard Business School professor Emeritus, James Heskett, raises a vital question, Can We Train for Trust? He writes, “Trust is, as it is for many things in society, the bedrock for employee engagement. A culture that fosters trust reduces what academics call transactional ‘friction.’ As a result, decisions are made and implemented faster and at lower cost, something critical in an age where speed takes on greater and greater value.” He quotes Airbnb co-founder and CEO, Brian Checky, “things move at the speed of trust.” Especially true for his company. Trust is at the core of an automated app or website connecting property owners with renters they’ve never met.

This aligns with Joe’s research on rebuilding trust. He uncovered strong evidence of leaders being able to rebuild trust. Among the twelve actions for rebuilding trust: be a role model, encourage cooperation, resolve conflicts, strengthen communications, give honest feedback, coach and mentor, be open to new ideas, and stay focused on the big picture. Rebuilding trust starts by identifying the causes of mistrust and knowing your strengths. Then communicate your intention to change and apologize. Create a plan for change with follow-up dates and accountability to someone you trust to support you.

Building a High-Trust Culture

Organizational culture is “the way we do things around here,” — especially when the boss isn’t around. It’s behavior that’s expected/rewarded and unacceptable/punished. Those are the organization’s lived or real values. They come directly from the signals organizational leaders send by where they spend their time and what they focus on.

How the leadership team functions — or dysfunctions — ripples out to shape organizational culture. Leadership team dynamics are central to the organization’s trust account balance.

Building a high trust, high energy, and higher performing culture has many moving parts. It can get complex; here’s a few keys that stand out:

  • Internal cultureand leadership brand must align with the external brand — despite how marketing might try to position the company.
  • An unfiltered feedback system reduces the smothering silence that causes many leaders to confuse their desired culture with their actual culture.
  • Three to four core values are the bedrock of culture. It’s very clear they’re either so much hot air and gas or rock-solid reality in hiring, promotions, performance management, succession planning, HR systems, recognition, and similar people decisions and processes.
  • It’s a virtuous circle — better leaders make better cultures, and better cultures make better leaders. The opposite, vicious circle, is also true.
  • Most companies with enduring greatness effectively manage the purpose-profit paradox — they have a culture of both purposeful profits and profitable purpose.
  • Most organizations believe they have communication problems. What they most often have are leadership problems. Team members see the messages loud and clear.

Many people see a huge credibility gap between the “aspired values” and the “lived values” that get people hired, fired, and promoted. For example, a bully boss who kisses up and kicks down is promoted because he or she delivers results. Results at any cost are the organization’s real values — despite lofty mission, vision, and values statements.

Trusted leaders who’ve fostered a trusting culture have positive trust accounts and will get the benefit of the doubt on close calls. Untrusted leaders who’ve built low trust cultures are running trust account deficits. Some are even bankrupt, but don’t know it yet. Close calls are quickly judged by “you’rree ooouuut!”