Passing the leadership trust test

In times of crisis, leaders of every kind must pass, first and last, the trust test.

Trust is always important for leaders to forge and maintain. But crises significantly amplify the importance of trust.

Crises tend to elicit one of two group responses. On the one hand, there’s panic: lots of frantic activity at cross purposes. On the other, there’s paralysis: doing nothing out of a sense of hopelessness. It’s essential for leaders to chart a middle path between the two extremes, and doing so requires maximizing trust, so teams and organizations have the confidence to align and take action, even in times of extreme uncertainty.

Yet at the same time, most of the leaders with whom we work closely have, if possible, moved their teams and organizations to virtual environments in order to minimize health risks. While this adjustment to current realities is sensible, it establishes new challenges for leaders who want to be intentional about cultivating, maintaining, and even growing trust.

How can leaders create trust under these circumstances?


First: understanding the sources of trust

Kenning has reimagined the Trust Equation, an easy to remember framework, for leaders to deploy when thinking about the sources of trust:

Trust =  Credibility + Reliability + Relatability

In this equation, effective leadership is magnified by maximizing the numerator elements (above the line) and minimizing the denominator (below the line).  Leaders must maximize what we sometimes call the “3 Abilities” of our version of the Trust Equation — Credibility, Reliability, and Relatability — by communicating truthfully and calling upon their own and others’ expertise (Credibility), following through on all of their commitments (Reliability), and maintaining and cultivating close working relationships that skillfully combine the personal and professional (Relatability).*

All of this needs to be done while minimizing Self-Orientation: embracing a team- and organization-first mindset that subordinates the self-interest of leaders. (In a previously published article, Kenning Partner Mark Ledden helpfully explored some of the more subtle elements of self-orientation. Read it here.)

In the specific response to COVID-19, individuals, teams, and organizations will trust their leaders if they rely on good, factual information (Credibility), act decisively and consistently to protect physical safety and business continuity (Reliability), and empathize with challenges that employees, customers, and business partners are facing (Relatability).


Second: taking action effectively in a virtual workplace

To be more specific about maximizing trust in your leadership in a virtual workplace, we recommend the following simple yet fundamental actions:

Focus on individuals and what they need

  • Prioritize the safety and well-being of the people in your organization. This includes not only physical well-being but also mental well-being
  • Simplify the work products and deliverables that teams are responsible for (to the extent possible) with a focus on creating clear, easily understood objectives and goals
  • Encourage a supportive and developmental stance, with a focus on coaching and mentorship, avoiding the common reflex when moving to more flexible working conditions for managers to enforce “compliance” relative to working hours and work product.

Get the team energized and focused on collective goals

  • Encourage 1-1 and small group (virtual) connections, to maintain the bonds of social cohesion and sidestep the dangerous traps of isolation and alienation
  • Find ways to convene your teams and organizations together in virtual town halls and working sessions to cultivate a sense that you are all in this together, maintaining an organization-wide sense of collective effort
  • Rally your teams against the virus, and use the crisis to create the opportunity to actually bring your teams closer together while you are more physically apart.

In times of crisis, the most inspiring leaders make themselves secondary to their people. Yet, while leaders should orient themselves to serve and support their direct reports, teams, and organizations, they need support, too. Now is a good time for leaders to take stock of their own support system and where they can go for advice, understanding, and renewal. We at Kenning would like to think that we are a part of that support network. Let us know how we can help.


* The Trust Equation originated in David Maister’s book The Trusted Advisor. We’ve changed the name of the last element at the top of the equation, which he calls “intimacy.”