The Trust Imperative: Part I

Do you trust the leaders in your organization to make decisions in the best interest of the entire firm? Do you trust them to proactively deal with important issues or prevent crises? Studies such as the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer would indicate that your answer is likely “no”.

Some of the current notions regarding trust are based on the times in which we live – a legal market that is changing as well as shrinking, record numbers of unemployed law school graduates saddled with record amounts of student debt, daily news of trust violations between business, government and society.

Some of our notions regarding trust, however, stem from how individuals behave. Leaders might not deliberately set out to violate trust, but it’s wise for them to be aware of how their actions could be judged.

Aneil Mishra, Ph.D.

Aneil Mishra, Ph.D.

I turned to internationally renowned leadership consultant Aneil Mishra, Ph.D. to share some advice about how leaders can build trust. He and his wife, Karen Mishra, Ph.D., have written two of the most respected texts on trust building in organizations – Trust is Everything and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader. Aneil now serves as the Thomas D. Arthur Professor of Leadership at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

Q. Why are trusting relationships so important in a workplace?

Vulnerability constitutes the core of most definitions of trust. Trust is one party’s willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on the belief that the latter party is reliable, open, competent and compassionate. In a workplace, we rely on each other to demonstrate these characteristics in order to get our jobs done.

Q. Could you elaborate on those four qualities?

We call this the “ROCC of Trust”, for the sake of simplicity.

Reliability means doing what you say you will do over and over again, so you begin to be thought of as consistent. Your words have to match your actions.

Openness implies honesty. In its narrowest expression, it means not lying to your colleagues. It its fullest expression, it implies complete disclosure.

Competence is something most lawyers are good at. You should able to do the job as expected or even better than expected. Note that competence as a lawyer doesn’t necessarily translate to competence as a leader (and vice-versa).

Compassion means not taking advantage of another person. If someone uses a mistake against a colleague, withholds helpful information or isn’t concerned with the well-being of others, he or she is probably lacking this component.

 Q. These sound like basic rules for being a good person. Can they create business advantage?

Absolutely. I started out studying the crisis in the automotive industry more than two decades ago. I discovered that the very few organizations that successfully dealt with the crisis and went on to survive for a long time were the ones that had trust within the top management team, and between that team and its employees. That nucleus of trust helped develop a great deal of resilience when they were faced with a new crisis or threat years later.

This is translatable to most firms or industries facing competitive threats or challenges, such as legal services. When I study healthy, growing companies to try to figure out what is working, I always find similar dynamics at play.

Q. What conclusions are you drawing from your latest research on organizational trust?

What we’ve learned in the last few years is that a certain part of trust might be more critical than others. It’s actually the compassion dimension that will become most critical for a lot of different reasons, such as:

  1. Over time, simply being highly competent or highly reliable, isn’t going to be enough to differentiate yourself. Uncompetitive, incompetent, unreliable firms or actors will be gone. We saw this in the auto industry. Trying to differentiate yourself on the basis of just having higher quality, for example, in the automotive industry, is not really enough because the differences are so small. The same could be true for law firms.
  2. People and firms are highly vulnerable and will remain so in a weak economy. So, the firm or organization that comes across as having a stakeholder group’s best interests at heart will be the one that people will naturally gravitate towards. This is especially important in recruiting and retaining talent.
  3. We’ve identified some compassionate business practices that are leading to corporate success. For example, Two Men and a Truck, from the very founding of the firm, has developed an approach to charitable giving that supports their 200+ franchises in being trustworthy members of their local community. Some law firms do the same with provision of pro bono services in the cities where their regional offices are located.
  4. On a big picture level, compassion as demonstrated by the organization will be considered a key component when people are deciding where to spend their money. Demonstrating this helps people feel less vulnerable, which also makes them more likely to buy from you.

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The business of law pivots on trust: without trust between colleagues in a firm, between lawyers and clients, between firms and employees, regulators and the regulated and almost every other stakeholder, the legal system would likely fall apart. Next week, I’ll publish the second half of the interview with Aneil Mishra and discuss his ideas on what leaders can do in cases where trust needs to be built or repaired and the resources required.

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