Trust Your Elders? Why Younger Leaders Are Winning The Game Of Trust

June 18, 2020

Younger leader listening to an older leader.

We often hear sayings like, “With age comes wisdom,” and you should “respect your elders.”  Many people believe that, with all this wisdom and respect, older leaders are more trustworthy than younger ones. We have measured trust for over 15 years, and we thought it would be interesting to look at trust by age and time. Before 2015 there was not a clear trend for any age group of leaders being more trusted. However, from 2015 onward, we noticed a clear trend that younger leaders (those 40 and younger) had significantly higher trust scores than the 41-to-50 and the 51-and-up group. In the last five years, there has been a significant impact from technology and industry disruption that has had a profound impact on many organizations and the way that leaders are viewed.

In the graph below, we show results for leaders who were assessed from 2015 to 2019. For the most part, these are different leaders being assessed. 65% of the population of leaders come from the US but the remainder from across the globe. The assessment to collect the trust data was the Extraordinary Leader 360-degree assessment, where managers, peers, direct reports, and others provide feedback to a specific leader. On average, 13 raters provided feedback on each leader. Post hock test indicated the results for the 21 to 40 group were statistically significant from the other two groups for 2019 and 2018.


Why are Younger Leaders More Trusted?

I analyzed the results for the 2019 data to identify which behaviors most highly correlated with trust and showed the largest difference between older and younger leaders. The results point out the four most influential factors.

1.     Willingness to ask for feedback and improve. Younger leaders were rated significantly higher on their willingness to ask for feedback from others and to create an atmosphere of continuous improvement. Our research shows that as people age, their willingness and effectiveness at asking for feedback declines. They assume that they have learned all the lessons and have the experience needed to be successful because they did ask for feedback at a younger age. The reality is that with the dynamic changes occurring in technology, the needs of every organization are continually changing, which requires leaders to be more agile today. For older leaders to maintain the respect and trust of others, they need to ask for and be open to feedback, and continuously be looking for ways to improve.

2.     Consistency. Younger leaders were rated significantly higher on their ability to be counted on to follow through on commitments. Too often, older leaders write checks that others cannot cash. Older leaders tell others they are doing fine when their performance is only average. They agree to achieve a difficult commitment but then miss deadlines and expect others to accept their excuses. Older leaders are rated lower on their ability to honor obligations and keep their promises. This erodes trust.

3.     Building Positive Relationships. Older leaders were rated less positively on a series of behaviors that were all focused on relationships with others. These behaviors included cooperation, collaboration across groups, staying in touch with others’ concerns, resolving conflict, skillful communications, inspiring others, and balancing getting results with a concern for others’ needs. The bottom line is we trust those that are more likable. Some people, as they age, seem less willing to invest time and effort to maintain positive relationships, eventually becoming grumpy old men and women.

4.     Poor Judgment and Lack of Expertise. We trust others that are well informed, knowledgeable, and understand new technologies. Often when a physician tells us we much stop some habits, we listen even though we have heard suggestions from other people hundreds of times. When a leader does not have in-depth expertise, but because of their position, they make a poor decision and lose the trust of others. Leaders can gain the perception of expertise by listening to and utilizing the advice of experts in their decision making which enhances the trust that others have in them.

Not Every Older Leader is Untrusted

Many of the most trusted leaders are older. It is not a leader’s age that causes them to be trusted or untrusted it is their actions. We know that by being open to feedback, consistent, having positive relationships, and exercising good judgment, a person can become more trusted.

– Joe Folkman

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