One of the many reasons successful modern leaders are leaving traditional leadership philosophies in the past is that, often, these older philosophies created toxic and harmful workplace cultures that ultimately ended up worse for everybody involved: team members, leadership, and stakeholders. The past was all about discipline and consequences, and while those concepts will certainly always have their place, a new focus has taken the foreground: trust.
In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek speaks about the importance of trust in an organization and, specifically, the importance of building circles of safety. He uses the example of the Castle Rock Police Department, and how a certain Chief Jack Cauley was able to turn the department’s culture of mistrust and fear into one of flowing trust and performance. The key to success came in three steps: listening, acting, and committing.
Whether you’re trying to revamp an existing culture or you’re trying to lay the foundations for a new one altogether, a thriving culture of trust can’t simply begin to exist spontaneously. The first few bricks need to be placed before anything else can start to take form and, in this case, those first few bricks are listening.
Important always but especially when changing a culture of mistrust, listening has two crucial functions. First, it is an act of compassion and empathy. Most of us have likely worked in an environment where leaders doing so much as taking an interest in our work-related issues would have made a world of difference. That being said, listening by itself is not enough. The other crucial function of listening is, of course, learning. Specifically, listening to your team members helps you learn about what problems need solutions, and what actions you can take to build a trusting environment.
Doing the Little Things
A full workplace culture makeover isn’t going to happen after one or two listening sessions, but once you’ve spoken with your team members and gotten an idea about what’s missing in the workplace, you can start to take some actions. Maybe you ultimately want your team members to hold each other accountable, or you need them to fully trust you and speak both openly and honestly. That’s a lot to ask for right away.
Instead, start with the little things. Is there a general consensus that the workplace is missing a coffee pot? Make it happen. Have multiple people expressed that certain tools or software is missing in order to do a better job? See if you can get those resources. While these are small things and aren’t the end-all-be-all actions you will take to help your team, they serve as evidence that you are listening, and that they can start to trust you for bigger things.
Committing to Trust
Trust is reciprocal, and while leaders must be the first to trust their team—that’s what recruitment is all about—the reciprocated trust won’t always be immediate, especially if you’re trying to change a culture of mistrust. That’s what the first two points are all about. By listening sincerely and acting on the little things, you can spark up a bit of tinder that will help you build that roaring fire of confidence in your workplace.
That’s just the beginning, however. After that initial bit of trust, it’s your responsibility to commit to that trust, and through the same process, work towards building those important circles of trust little by little. Through a continuous commitment, your team will see an authentic commitment to the workplace community, which will help them feel more comfortable entering this circle of trust with you and, ultimately, with the entire workplace.
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