Trust is the bedrock of any successful relationship, and business leaders’ ability to foster relationships is invaluable to their organization’s innovation.
That’s why the newest book from JetBlue Airways Corp. Chairman Joel Peterson, “The 10 Laws of Trust: Building the Bonds that Make a Business Great,” is so relevant. In it, Peterson writes about what makes people trustworthy.
Talent Economy spoke with Peterson about his ideas on trust and how to build it in a business setting. Edited excerpts:
How can employees grow to trust their leaders?
I don’t think the employees need to really grow to trust leaders. It’s the job of the leaders to be trustworthy. I think from the standpoint of the leaders, they have to minimize what I call “say-do gaps,” the difference between what they say and what they do. I think as employees observe leaders who are trustworthy, then I think they can assume the best.
I think it’s by delivering on promises. We really learn to trust people when they do what they say they’re going to do, or when they fail, to kind of admit the failure. And the failure then is really not a function of character or a function of effort, but rather just a function of results not turning out. But I think trustworthy people tend to come clean. They talk about failure, and they understand the reasons for it, and they address it the next time they go around.
What do they gain from earning the trust of their employees?
Both employees and business leaders and businesses and shareholders and suppliers and customers and everybody will see more innovation. If there’s high trust, there’s more collaboration between people. Only when people trust one another do they collaborate effectively — and that tends to generate innovation.
They tend to see things happening faster. In bureaucratic organizations that are burdened by mistrust and rules and policy manuals, etc., things slow down. You also see that agreements aren’t as flexible. People become very hidebound, very rule bound, and they’re not very flexible. Circumstances can never be completely described within a legal document or within a policy manual, and so it tends to not just slow things down, but makes people inflexible.
And I think, finally, it’s just no fun. If there is no trust, it is just no fun to go to work and deal with people in a low-trust environment.
Are there other risks an organization faces when employees don’t trust leaders and vice versa?
They tend to be highly political. People are covering themselves. They’re hiding information. They’re metering things out. The best ideas don’t win. The most powerful people do win and therefore these organizations tend to become kind of bureaucratic or aristocratic, and they become ossified, inflexible.
What are the similarities and differences between trust and transparency?
I think they’re fundamentally different. Transparency is not always good. There’s not a necessary virtue to transparency. I think trust, there has to be honesty.
But sometimes, there are things that you can’t disclose. Some things are not appropriate to disclose. There are some things that are confidential. I think the main thing then is to be transparent about not being transparent. In other words, just to say, “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share this information.” Or “I’m unable to talk with you about this at this point.” There’s a certain transparency in that. But I don’t think you need to be transparent about all information. I think that’s actually dangerous.
What is the biggest mistake you think a leader can make when trying to be trustworthy?
If a leader is really working at being trustworthy, in other words doing what he or she says they’ll do and is laying out objectives clearly and empowering others, those are all laudable things, and they tend to build trust. But that doesn’t mean you won’t fail at times. The biggest mistake would be to beat yourself up for failing to get results that you’ve expected or to blame others.
How can leaders restore trust after it’s been lost?
Well, it’s hard. And it’s not always possible. And sometimes it probably shouldn’t be restored. There are reasons that it was breached. Sometimes it’s best that people move on if they can let go. I think it’s not a good thing to harbor blame and anger and whatever. I think that actually cankers people. So it can be hard. If you can find small breaches of trust, mistakes made, things that aren’t understood and address them early on, that is clearly the best thing to do.
But if you find one of these, whether you’re involved or if you just discovered one, I think things that are necessary are: people need to apologize to the point that the other party accepts the apology, and you’ve come to some kind of an arrangement there. I think people have to make amends if there’s been a cost, a loss to somebody, I think that that needs to be made up. And then I think you have to get back to, if you can, square one. You have to realize that you’re going to have to rebuild. You may have to go back to square one. You may have to say, “We’re going to back up and rebuild on a more firm platform.”
There are costs to rebuilding trust. I don’t think it’s easy to do, which is one of the reasons it’s a whole lot better never to breach trust, to really be careful about it, to recognize that it’s a really powerful medium of exchange. When you have trust with somebody, that’s a really wonderful, ennobling, empowering kind of relationship, and you don’t ever want to violate it.
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.