Six ways for leaders to rebuild trust with their teams
This era has been called the darkest hour for leadership since World War II. A human energy crisis, a revolution striking at the very heart of the term organization – and the opportunity of a generation.
Much has been written about the dramatic changes of the last three years and the battle to rebuild fragmented workplaces.
But as a leader, you probably can’t shift international economies or make the legacies of a global pandemic disappear. Ongoing staff turnover, soaring workplace mental health issues and exhausted employees wanting even more flexibility are some of the realities of our post-COVID-19 world.
So, how can you influence an out-of-control situation and shift people from surviving to delivering first-class business results?
The answer lies in what you can control – the words you speak and write, the relationships you strengthen and the way you interact with people every day.
Clear, credible communication, the kind that re-establishes trust with disconnected teams, is your key to not only meeting the challenges of this changed environment, but redefining yourself as a leader.
Traditional approaches to communication will only go so far in 2023 and beyond. The new way of leadership requires fresh eyes, open ears and a credible voice.
In an age of ‘infobesity’, information alone won’t help your teams. What they need from you is a new level of discernment and expertise in the way you communicate, reflected in these six key principles.
1. Be a consistent voice of truth
Many people started the year feeling adrift, overwhelmed by recent events and uncertain about the future. You’re unlikely to need a survey to tell you that. Perhaps you’re feeling it in your organization and even within yourself.
Research from Edelman tracks the steady decline of trust in all forms of government and media. The ‘2023 Edelman Trust Barometer’ report found that business is now the most trusted institution, while trust in CEOs has increased and trust in co-workers remains relatively high.
Unwilling to believe politicians or the few mainstream media outlets that still command some respect, people are turning to their workplace in the hope of finding a credible voice – and not only on work-related matters.
Your employees are looking for someone they can believe in. They want clarity, certainty and a purpose they can support.
You must be clear on what you stand for, both as an individual leader and an organization. Communicate it clearly, consistently and act in a way that matches your words.
"A credible leader doesn’t voice a strong commitment to the company’s purpose on Monday, then appoint someone who isn’t aligned on Tuesday."
In the past, conversations about the greater purpose of the business might have been saved for special meetings or announcements. Now, they need to be part of daily activities.
If you’re losing great staff, it might feel easier to focus on plugging the leaks rather than talking about your organization’s broader reason for being and why anyone should care. But this is a critical foundation.
If you neglect it and jump straight to the tactical details, you won’t give people around you that deeper sense of purpose they’re seeking. You won’t give them a reason to stay, or attract new people to your business, beyond the ‘hygiene factors’ of pay and conditions.
Being a consistent voice also involves sticking to your guns about what really matters, even if that means leaving a vacant role unfilled.
High turnover can mean settling for second best or taking someone on or promoting internally when they’re not the right fit. But a credible leader doesn’t voice a strong commitment to the company’s purpose on Monday, then appoint someone who isn’t aligned on Tuesday.
2. Tell it straight (even if the news is bad)
The last few years have blown apart any notion that leaders can control information while employees passively wait for snippets of facts.
In strained workplaces, people’s senses are heightened to detect insincerity, misleading information or details being glossed over.
A 2022 Microsoft survey found that nearly all business decision-makers and employees believe effective communication – authentic, not just informative – is among the most critical skills they will need in the year ahead.
In a volatile economy, you might at times need to give your team unwelcome news involving job losses, a restructure or other big changes. It’s important to give it to them straight, without sugar-coating the facts, while never losing sight of the people who are affected.
"Nearly all business decision makers and employees believe effective communication – authentic, not just informative – is among the most critical skills they will need in the year ahead."
Don’t ‘bury the lead’ by trying to soften a difficult message with a more positive preamble. In an intense situation, it can feel more comfortable to buffer at the start, but you might unintentionally mislead or confuse people.
Your honesty will be more appreciated than any linguistic gymnastics to make a bad situation sound better.
When you don’t have all the answers, it can also be tempting to stay silent rather than give an incomplete response. But at a time of high uncertainty, your people want you to tell them what you know. It might not be the full picture, but they will forgive you for that, as long as you make it clear.
What they won’t forgive is leadership silence.
Holding back information that could affect roles and ways of working, even if done with noble intentions, contributes to the poor management and toxic cultures cited as key reasons for people leaving their jobs.
Rumors grow in an information vacuum. If you become aware of an issue or concern, take the initiative and talk about it rather than waiting until it escalates into a bigger problem.
3. Have brave conversations that put people first
Leading effectively when people are experiencing the after-effects of a traumatic time means championing both a culture of care and one of high performance.
Organizations that thrive will genuinely have the best interests of their people at their core. It can’t be something on a wall or website that doesn’t translate into words and actions.
Human-centered communication doesn’t come naturally for many leaders. Unless you’re a trained counselor or feel comfortable talking to people about their feelings, you and your leadership team might shy away from conversations that go deeper.
"Organizations that thrive will genuinely have the best interests of their people at their core."
You can set the tone by acknowledging that you don’t need to be a mental health professional to help an employee who is struggling. However strong your own discomfort, you can rise above it and ask them how they’re going.
Psychologists recommend sharing your own experience of the last few years. This invites the other person’s vulnerability rather than having a shallow conversation that could lead to blame and excuses.
If you tend to avoid emotion-based conversations, rather than telling yourself "I’m not good at empathy", bring your strengths to the interaction. For example, if you’re naturally curious and ask useful questions in other situations, apply those skills here.
Take a human and strength-based approach instead of straining to be empathetic if it doesn’t come easily and you’ll create empathy as a natural side effect.
As the next step in the conversation, encourage the person to seek help from a professional. Have information ready on all available options, from your organization’s Employee Assistance Program to other help lines and services.
Being prepared to take the lead in these conversations can have a significant impact, not just on the individual employee but on the broader team, with a potential ripple effect across your entire organization.
4. Be equal parts strong and warm
Her political career might be over, but there’s a reason former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s name frequently crops up in discussions about outstanding communication.
She consistently achieved the balance of qualities required for a leader to be credible. On one side, sits competence and strength. On the other, there is relatability, humanity and warmth.
"Your people need to have confidence in your ability and also connect as a person."
Your people need to have confidence in your ability and also connect as a person. Put all your focus on the competence and strength side of the scales and you risk coming across as dry, aloof, uncaring and even boring.
Swing to the extreme of the caring, warm side and you could be perceived as a likable lightweight – someone who’s popular, but not a leader to be taken seriously.
In all your communications, evaluate how effectively you’re maintaining the balance. Make adjustments if you need to.
5. Connect deeply (on all communication platforms)
It matters, like never before, that you retain great employees and communicate well across your organization, regardless of whether the environment is face-to-face, virtual or hybrid.
Whether you prefer Zoom or Teams, email or the phone, communication tools are exactly that – tools to help you connect. Don’t let the channel get in the way of your ability to fully engage with your people.
"Communication itself is a human experience and, as a leader, you need to drive it."
The communication itself is a human experience and, as a leader, you need to drive it.
Do a self-check about your ability across all the platforms you use in your organization. It can be useful to break them into categories:
Stage: Do you convey your message with confidence and credibility when you speak in front of a group?
Screen: How do you rate your credibility and effectiveness in virtual meetings, video calls and pre-recorded videos?
Sanctum: In the privacy of meeting rooms, how well do you communicate face-to-face, especially when the stakes are high?
Script: How do you rate your written communication, whether it’s an email, quick message or longer report? Do you create clarity or cause confusion?
Perhaps you’re an amazing presenter but write wordy, bureaucratic emails. Or maybe you excel in individual conversations but become a deer-in-the-headlights in online meetings.
A credible leader must be outstanding across all areas.
6. Shift teams from being problem-focused to realizing tomorrow’s potential
American academics Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner conducted research over more than 25 years, across six continents, to distill what 100,000 people saw as the most admired qualities in a leader.
The top four were consistent year after year. As you might expect, honesty led the list. Competence was number three.
The other two top qualities related to a leader’s ability to take people from their current state and show them new possibilities. Number two was being forward-looking and the fourth quality was being inspirational.
"These forward-focused leadership attributes have never been more important than they are today."
These forward-focused leadership attributes have never been more important than they are today.
They go further than communicating the certainties or uncertainties of the moment. They’re about helping your people see a way through, even though the going might still be tough.
If your circumstances allow it, now is the time to talk about the future with energy and commitment. The tone you set can move people from languishing in despair to a positive focus on the path ahead.
That doesn’t mean ignoring the challenges of the present or failing to acknowledge the collective pain we’ve gone through. You can do those things and still inject a strong sense of optimism into your communication.
The last few years have shown us that, even as we plan ahead, global factors will continue to impact our organizations and teams.
If the future of your business doesn’t look so bright, be honest about it. If major changes are likely, talk about them as early as you can.
Remember, you may not be able to control the circumstances, but you have a choice about your own actions. The way you communicate makes a significant impact.
Hubert Joly, the former CEO of electronics giant Best Buy, summed it up on the Edelman podcast The TrustMakers. "I believe now is a great leadership moment. Leaders can decide to help create a future that does not exist yet but needs to be better than what we have now."
Neryl East shows leaders how to communicate with credibility, especially when the stakes are high. She is an award-winning speaker, has a PhD in journalism and is the author of five books including an Amazon bestseller on media and reputation. Neryl has been a professional communicator for more than three decades, including a television and radio career and a stint as an Olympic announcer.