Every year, the Edelman Trust Barometer releases a study on the global landscape of trust in institutions. The Spring 2020 update, which shared the results of a survey of taken by people in 11 countries from April 15‒23, is especially timely given that the survey was administered during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This update identified several areas of deep concern when it comes to trust. Only 38% of people believe business is doing “well” or “very well” at putting people before profits, and only 39% believe business is doing “well” or “very well” at protecting their employees’ financial wellbeing and safeguarding their jobs. CEOs scored even worse. Only 29% of respondents believe that CEOs are doing an outstanding job responding to the demands placed on them by the pandemic.

So how can you build trust during times of crisis when it may be more important than ever?

  1. Re-prioritize and live your organization’s values. Values are probably the single biggest component to building trust. Organizational values are the backbone for the culture of the organization. Values are to an organization what character is to an individual. Your values need to be discussed and reaffirmed regularly, but especially during a crisis. Values provide the guidance system for knowing when to take a stand, for empowering employees to take risks, for reminding us why we make sacrifices, and for defining where we stand together. Values serve as the basis of acceptable behavior.

The most important aspect of values is that senior leaders not only espouse them, but they demonstrate them in their own actions and don’t tolerate actions that violate the organization’s values in times of crisis and uncertainty.

  1. Make the stories you tell personal. Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, has regularly sent letters to his friends and clients since March. Each letter provides insights, wisdom, and advice, and begins with an impactful personal story. In one letter, Burnison described the time he was caught in a riptide as a child and how it applies to the lesson of not fighting the current but going with it. Another letter shared a text Burnison received from his dentist about finding cause for celebrating, even if it’s just being thankful that COVID-19 social distancing measures also meant no more waiting in reception areas at appointments, reading old magazines. Another recalled Burnison being 12 years old at basketball camp, when legendary coach Gene Keady pulled him aside and said, “You’re going to be a leader. Never stop believing.” That encouragement stayed with him all these years, not only for what Keady said but how he made Burnison feel.

These are great reminders that at a time when different work needs to get done – and needs to get done differently – leaders have to change. Today, everyone is a leader, and it culminates in how we make others feel. To connect on a human level, being willing and able to express emotion and vulnerability, is critical. Your people may admire your intellect and analytical skills, but they will trust you when they can connect to your humanity.

  1. Embody the maxim “leaders eat last.” The one vital leader trait that builds trust in times of crisis is putting service to others ahead of self. When you see examples every day of leaders caring about the whole of the organization before their own interests, you witness memorable examples of self-interest giving way to shared interest and complete selflessness.

In times of distress, it’s natural to worry about surviving and getting through the trauma with minimal personal loss. Yet few behaviors build trust as much as making personal sacrifices and putting the organization and team first. You serve the team. To build trust in a crisis, your ego must take a backseat to the care and success of the team. But if you monitor your ego and put your team first, you’ll make the team better, and your servant approach will build exceptional trust.

As research like the Edelman Trust Barometer has stated, “Trust capital is perhaps a business’ best insurance policy against crises, risk, and disruption today…(and) is also it’s best investment toward driving positive business impact tomorrow.”

If your people don’t trust your leadership, then navigating a crisis and delivering future success becomes nearly impossible.

June 22, 2020

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