Understanding Trust: The Salt Of Leadership

August 8, 2020

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Salt and Leadership

Salt changes the flavor of many foods—often in unexpected ways. I remember an experience I had when I was young of being served fresh cantaloupe for dessert. I remember being surprised to hear my father say, “Please pass the salt.” When I gave my Father a disgusted look, he suggested to me to sprinkle salt on my melon. To my complete surprise, the melon was made even sweeter.

This is not complex chemistry. Salt draws water to itself. By sprinkling salt on a melon, the area with high salt concentration draws the sweet water there. If you bite in the vicinity of the salt, the added flow of water brings more flavor, making the cantaloupe taste even sweeter.

The salt does not add a new taste of its own, but it changes the chemical structure of the melon to bring out the flavor that otherwise would be locked in the cantaloupe’s cells.

Is there a similar seasoning for leadership?

The research I have done with Zenger Folkman showed the power of combinations of various leadership behaviors. Good things always result when you combine two leadership behaviors, such as “drives for results” and “strong interpersonal skills.”

There is one combination that we found to be unique, much in the same way that salt affects a melon.  The combination of trust and virtually every other leadership behavior brings a dramatic improvement.  It goes beyond trust merely being one more valued behavior. Why does this happen?  We conclude that trust changes the way people respond to a leader. It identifies and validates the leader’s motivation. Trust assures others about whether the leader is acting out of self-interest or the interests of the organization. It convinces colleagues that they are not being hoodwinked or taken advantage of.

To demonstrate the impact of trust, my colleague Jack Zenger and I analyzed data from over 400,000 direct reports who reported to 75,000 leaders. We were interested in trust, along with the direct reports’ perceptions of their manager’s communication skills and its impact on engagement. Each manager was evaluated on their skills at communicating and the level of trust by, on average, five direct reports. We also measured the level of employee engagement using a five-item index, which is an excellent predictor of engagement. The five items assess the extent to which direct reports are satisfied with the organization, would recommend it as a good place to work, their confidence the organization will achieve its strategic goals, the extent they are willing to go the extra mile and finally, their willingness to continue to work for the organization.

We then divided leaders into two groups on both skills. Those at or below the 25th percentile we term low skill and those at or above the 75th percentile we call high skill. The graph below shows the results of the study.

Note that the low trust, low communication skill group had an engagement score at the 27th percentile.  If trust moved to high but communication was still low, the score went up to the 45th percentile. If communication increased to the top quartile, but trust was still low, then engagement moved to the 52nd percentile. But when both were high, engagement moved into the top quartile, the 76th percentile, which is the goal for many organizations.

Consider what happens when a person has a leader who communicates well, keeps the team informed, and delivers messages others understand, but trust is lower than desired. Even though direct reports understand messages, they may question the motives of the leader, and ultimately, their commitment would be reduced. The combination of high trust with communication skills significantly increased engagement by 24 percentile points.

The Impact of Trust on Other Leadership Competencies

We wondered if trust would have the same impact on other leadership competencies. We ran the data looking at 16 leadership competencies that have been found to most effectively differentiate great leaders. We looked at the impact high performance on trust would have on each of the 16 competencies where performance was also high.

ZFCO

When you calculate the impact of adding a high level of trust to each of the competencies, the average increase in engagement went up 23 percentile points. For all of the competencies listed above, the addition of high trust moved engagement above the 70th percentile, and for 12 of the competencies, into the top quartile. Adding in trust makes leadership better, which increases the engagement level of direct reports. It is fascinating to study which competencies experienced the most significant combination effect.

Develops Strategic Perspective. It’s helpful to have a clear strategy, but when direct reports also have a high level of trust, they are more likely to believe in and take action on the strategy. Trust gives direct reports more confidence that the strategy will yield excellent results.

Connects to the Outside World. This competency focuses on how customers and outside organizations impact a company. Trust makes assumptions about the changing needs of customers and global trends more believable.

Establishes Stretch Goals. Without trust, asking direct reports to take on a difficult or challenging goal is almost impossible. Many people in the best of circumstances resist stretch goals, but when there is a high trust relationship, direct reports feel more of an obligation and willingness to accept a challenging goal.

Champions Change. While many people resist change, having a trusting relationship with a leader opens the door for people to try.

All of these competencies are not the ones that are typically highly correlated with increasing the engagement levels of employees, but by mixing trust with each of these competencies, employee engagement improves significantly.

In a previous blog, we provided research on the three key skills needed to improve trust. The three skills are the ability to build positive relationships, consistency between your words and actions, and your technical expertise and knowledge.

As you consider your effectiveness as a leader, think about the level of trust you have with your direct reports. It’s difficult to get an accurate assessment of the trust others have in you by simply asking others, “Do you trust me?” Usually, an anonymous survey is the best way to get an accurate assessment or asking a trusted friend for frank and honest feedback. The message of this analysis is very clear: whatever skills or capabilities might be your strengths, if you can increase trust, then that skill will be enhanced, and the outcome improved.