Is Trust an Essential Leadership Behavior?

Sweeney, et al, in Trust and Influence in Combat, are making a case for a correlation between the level of trust subordinates have in their leaders and the amount of leadership influence they will accept. Most leaders today probably accept the fact that a significant part of their role is the ability to influence others. Citing a number of authors and researchers, Sweeney, et at, conclude that the leadership literature up to 2009 would view trust as “an important outcome of leader behaviors, but not critical to the exercise of influence” (p. 240). This study, then, was designed to show that “trust is necessary and essential to the exercise of influence beyond compliance”.

I like the use of the word “compliance”. In our work we do all we can to help team leaders move the behaviors of those they lead from compliance to commitment. And, we show them how important relationships are in that endeavor. It doesn’t take much convincing for people to see this link. We have not, however, been making the case for the importance of trust in these relationships. And this is where I see my current study of trust taking me.

Back to the word “influence”. We are an authorized partner of Everything DiSC® - a new division of John Wiley & Sons. (They purchased Inscape Publishing last year). A recent Wiley book, The Work of Leaders, and a companion profile originally published by Inscape, The Work of Leaders, is based on significant research which resulted in an elegant model of the real work of leaders - crafting a Vision, building Alignment, & championing Execution. When we first introduced this model to a group of leaders running small businesses in our area, they quickly gravitated to discussing alignment. It seemed that once the vision was clear to these leaders they really struggled with turning it into something others would follow. Sound like a problem with leadership influence to you? it does to me. So, once again, this study spoke to me. I’ll end this post with one more quote; this time from page 250:

“First, and most importantly, the study found that the level of followers’ trust in a leader was highly predictive of their willingness to accept the leader’s influence regarding motivation to become better group members, strive for excellence, or improve as a person. This is an important finding because it provides empirical evidence to support the link between the trust-development process and the influence process, as hypothesized.”

And, I might add, the link between trust and alignment with a vision.

Trust and Organizational Structure

Sweeny, et al, in Trust and Influence in Combat, point to the impact of organizational structure on an Army leader’s effort to instill trust in those he or she leads. The factors in such an organizational structure could be regulations, cultural norms, and standard operating procedures. They say adding the factor of organizational structure broadens the scope of any model of trust due to its impact on “influencing leaders to behave in a trustworthy manner” (p. 240). In the Army there is an explicit norm that expects leaders to “promote and protect the welfare of their soldiers”. During my years as an aircraft commander in the Air National Guard I experienced that sense of obligation and it is easy to see how this will play out in environments where leadership has a life or death potential. But what about the more mundane world many of us work in?

This notion of organizational structure is also alluded to in Lencioni’s work (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) as the development of group norms. And there are a multitude of studies in social psychology focusing on group norms. As an example - “Group Norms and the Attitude-Behavior Relationship”. I must admit that organizational structure had not been on my list of factors influencing the development of trust on a team although during our many years of working with teams using our Team Checkup we always began with the creation of behavioral ground rules or agreements for acceptable team behavior. And these, of course, are team norms that are part of “organizational structure”. But they are not as structured as that referenced in Sweeny’s article. The military makes it imperative that leaders are trustworthy. I now wonder if other organizations do this.

Trust as Vulnerability

I recently came across a study on Trust and Influence in Combat published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2009 (Vol 1, pp 235-264) . There are a number of interesting points which caught my eye so I will use my next few posts to delve into them.

For this study the authors, Patrick Sweeney, Vaida Thompson, and Hart Blanton, use a definition of trust in an organizational setting which was proposed by Morton Deutsch in 1958 - one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another group member’s actions.

Trust as vulnerability struck me as being a very practical definition since we often see signs of mistrust on teams such as withholding information or lack of engagement in fulfilling the goals of the team. It seems to me that these team members would be more open and engaged if they were comfortable with being vulnerable with either the team leader or other team members or both. Sweeney, et al, suggest that in such a case the team member may not be confident that the team leader or other team member will behave cooperatively and that they feel no real measure of interdependence within the team. They reference work by Kelley and Thibaut which stresses the need for “developing trust through a reciprocating cycle in which each partner in a relationship acts to reduce the other’s fear of exploitation and to show that the relationship will be rewarding.”

Our firm is presently participating in a beta test of an instrument which will operationalize the concepts in Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Trust is the foundational behavior in his model and his attention to vulnerability seems to mirror Deutsch’s definition.

Lencioni addresses vulnerability as a willingness to be open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses. Obviously, if you do this you are opening yourself up to a series of actions by others on the team. Their responses to you will most likely be a part of the “reciprocating cycle” which either develops or destroys trust. If they are accepting and supportive you will probably risk more in the future and increase your vulnerability. If they are not, you will probably be less open in the future.

Once again I am seeing a key element of the DISC model I am researching - ACCEPTANCE. Personally I will be much more likely to be OPEN with my feelings as well as my mistakes and weaknesses if I know others will accept me with all of these limitations. I will also tend to be more STAIGHTFORWARD with others if I know they are willing to vulnerable as well.