Trust Begins with You

CEO

When you think about trusting others, do you wait to see if you can trust them, or do you trust first? As part of our research, teaching, and consulting on trustworthy leadership over thirty years, we’ve worked closely with Ted Castle, co-founder of Rhino Foods (provider of cookie dough to Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s) ever since we saw him profiled on CNN back in 1995. We’ve profiled him all three of our leadership books, and during a recent visit to his company headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, we asked him how he builds trust. He responded that he trusts others first, even though he might get burned in the process.

Trust is everything. Without a doubt, I trust people before they’ve earned or deserved it. I’m okay with that. Doesn’t bother me at all. If somebody might violate my trust, well, I’m okay with that. I’ll just be more careful with that person next time. Trust starts with me, then the leadership team, then supervisors, then employees. 

Ted knows that it is the leader’s job to create a culture of trust by trusting first. Doing so requires courage, as there’s always the possibility that your trust could be misplaced and violated. Nonetheless, in our work with leaders over the past three decades we’ve learned that if the leader doesn’t make the initial effort to build trust, then their followers will be much less likely to trust the leader as well as one another.

In addition to courage, we’ve found that leaders are more likely to initiate trust-building efforts if they have empathy, authenticity, and humility, which together with courage, form the foundation for building trust, or what we call EACH. Empathy allows a leader to build trust through emotional bonds with their followers, whereas authenticity provides the self-awareness to admit their limitations and present their true selves to others, encouraging their followers to be vulnerable in turn because they have greater certainty as to their leader’s intentions. Finally, humble leaders think of themselves less, and are more willing to ask for help in solving problems or taking on a new opportunity. These leadership characteristics also balance one another. For example, authentic leaders without empathy can easily become egocentric, and courageous leaders who lack humility can easily become arrogant or foolhardy. 

This foundation for building a culture of trust is then solidified by a leader modeling trustworthy behavior in four key ways: by following through, sharing information, doing their job well; and caring about their followers’ best interests. The sum of these four types of trustworthiness is called the ROCC of Trust®. By being trustworthy in these four ways, leaders encourage their followers to do the same, and in the process, to acknowledge their interdependence and be willing to collaborate with one another. On the other hand, if the leader doesn’t deliver as promised, is less than transparent, acts incompetently, or behaves selfishly, their employees will respond similarly, and the organization suffer correspondingly. 

A culture of trust enhances organizational effectiveness in a number of ways, including higher productivity and greater rates of innovation. Employees will be more engaged and productive if they believe that their efforts will be appropriately rewarded rather than only benefiting a few at the top. Innovation in turn depends on individuals being creative risk-takers, which they won’t do if they fear that they’ll suffer the consequences for any reasonable failures, which are inevitable when trying something new. Innovation also requires the pooling of scarce resources, whether human, material, or financial, and employees won’t share them if they don’t believe that others will reciprocate. 

At Rhino Foods, the culture of trust that developed resulted in its employees minimizeing the mistakes that led to $10,000 batches of brownies being thrown out due to poor quality, and to develop a wide variety of new cookie dough flavors and sizes as inclusions used not only by manufacturers, but also retail stores and quick-serve restaurants.

Being trustworthy in one way enhances trustworthiness in other ways, too. If the leader is open and honest, then followers will be more likely to share information as well, and this contributes to organizational competence. Job performance depends critically on the open exchange of information, and to a greater degree the more complex an organization is. Similarly, employees will be more likely to believe that their leaders care about them if they know that they first have the ability to enrich their welfare. The same can be said for an organization’s customers or clients: caring depends on competence. 

In the case of Rhino Foods, Ted’s transparency by using open book management in his privately held company was clearly an act of trusting first. His employees could easily have taken that the information on the company’s operations and finances to a competitor. Instead, by learning how the company made its money, or lost money through inefficiency or poor product quality, they could develop and apply their skills and creativity to improving its operations. In other words, openness bred reliability and competence. 

In turn, reliability and competence contributed to caring, not only for one other another, but also for the communities Rhino Foods serves. As Rhino Foods’s employees became more adept at “playing the game of business” as the former hockey coach Ted put it, they could leverage their abilities to train an entirely different group of new employees. These were refugees from Bosnia, Bhutan, Nepal, and Rwanda. First, Rhino Foods enrolled them in ESL classes. Then, current employees began training them in company’s collaborative approach to decision making and working together. In this manner competence among existing employees provided for demonstrating caring that then fostered abilities among new employees who could then contribute to an even higher level of organizational effectiveness.

Trusting first as the leader sets the tone for people to truly listen to each other and learn, use another’s strengths and appreciate them in each other, and to share credit for the good work done together. It then allows the entire organization to celebrate success both small and large.  In essence, our ability to build trust as a leader allows us to build a culture of trust in our organizations. That is a legacy worth pursuing.


Written by Dr. Aneil Mishra.
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