From my earliest days as a young Marine Corps officer I would set aside time to meet personally with every one of my Marines and explain my leadership philsophy. One of the things I would tell them is, “If I can trust you to choose whether or not to take a life, I can trust you with anything — and if we can’t trust each other, we are worthless to each other.”
If We Can’t Trust Each Other, We Are Worthless to Each Other
Certainly most leaders don’t live in a world of life-and-death decisions, but when I retired from the military and transitioned to the business world, trust remained a central element of my personal leadership philosophy. Indeed, enduring leadership success requires trust is one of four Truths of Communication-Based Leadership (CBL), each grounded in both research and practical experience.
Yet while trust is essential to the success of leaders and organizations, it is a challenging and elusive thing to establish, preserve, and strengthen. Within a team, members must be both trustworthy and willing to trust; trust relationships with customers, clients, and especially the broader general public, are further complicated by size, time, distance, and often lack of direct contact and interaction with leaders and their organizations. Trust must be gained through deliberate effort and constant vigilance, but it cannot be mandated. It must be freely given. Perhaps most challenging, trust is deeply personal and highly subjective, which makes it particularly difficult to maintain.
Most simply put, trust is hard to gain and easy to lose.
So how can leaders build the trust necessary for enduring success, whether within teams or among clients and customers? The purpose of this Hard NoCs essay is introduce you to the NoCabulary terms trust and credibility and help you accomplish precisely that.
What the Heck is Trust Anyway?
Before we can build trust, we need to know what it is.
Trust is commonly defined as the confidence someone will act in our best interest, often when we have little if any control over that action.
There are two types of trust however: cognitive trust, trust that is gounded in rational decisions; and affective trust, trust that is grounded in emotional decisions. (Each type of trust also has a distrust countrpart). In a sense, cognitive trust is based on what we know and choose while affective trust is based on what we feel and believe.
Both types of trust are incorporated into the CBL framework, but one element of the common definition of trust is omitted from NoC’s working definition: We hold that leaders and organizations can be — and often are — trusted even if they can’t be counted upon to act in our best interest. This is because affective trust often overrides cognitive trust. That is, people frequently give their trust to those who can’t reasonably be counted upon to act in their best interest.
Both cognitive and affective trust are beneficial to leaders and organizations, but cognitive trust is most likely to endure. This is accounted for within the CBL framework by drawing a distinction between trust and credibility, and establishing crediblity as the focus of effort for leaders and organizations intent on building trust that will endure, whether within teams or among clients and customers.
Trust and Credibility in Communication-Based Leadership
In context of Communication-Based Leadership, both cognitive and affective trust are linked to the consistency of and alignment between the words and deeds of a leader or organization. People are most likely to trust those who do what they say and say what they do; and they are most likely to distrust those who either aren’t consistent in what they say and do, or who demonstrate a “say-do gap” between their words and their actions.
Keep in mind, those granting affective trust (trust grounded in emotion) may well still trust a leader or organization that has a significant say-do gap; and conversely they may distrust a leader or organization that has almost no say-do gap whatsoever. When it comes to cognitive trust however, it is likely to be granted to leaders and organizations whose words and deeds are consistent and aligned — even if those leaders and organizations don’t have our best interests at heart. Consider that someone with little gap between their words and actions may very well be trustworthy, even if the things they can be counted on to say and do are truly terrible.
This brings us to the distinction between trust and credibility within the CBL framework.
At North of Center, we treat trust and credibility as nearly synonymous in that both are likely outcomes of consistency of and alignment between the words and deeds of a leader or organization.
There is one key distinction between the two however: trust refers to how consistency and alignment of words and deeds are perceived, while credibility refers to the literal consitency of and alignment between words and deeds. Your credibility belongs to you, but trust in you belongs to everyone else. When the terms are defined this way, leaders and organizations have direct control of their credibility, which is (a) most likely to result in cognitive trust and (b) can be maintained even in the face of affective distrust.
High credibility is a result of the degree to which your words and deeds are literally consistent and aligned.
High trust is a result of how people perceive the consistency and alignment of your words and deeds.
This leads to four possible combinations, each of which I’ll discuss briefly here.
High Credibility:High Trust
In a HC:HT relationship your words and deeds are consistent and aligned, and people know it. This is a cognitive trust scenario. Your goals in this situation are to preserve and strengthen your credibility, ensure those whose trust you have earned remain aware of your credibility, and maintain their cognitive trust.
High Credibility:Low Trust
In a HC:LT relationship your words and deeds are consistent and aligned, but for whatever reason people either don’t know it, or don’t believe it. This is likely an affective distrust scenario. Your goals in this situation are to engage with those whose trust you need, make them aware of your credibility, and either earn their cognitive trust or overcome their affective distrust.
Low Credibility:High Trust
In a LC:HT relationship your words and deeds are neither consistent nor aligned, but people haven’t yet realized it. This is an affective trust scenario. Your goals in this situation are to strengthen the consistency and alignment of your words and deeds to increase your credibility, communicate openly with those whose trust you need to maintain before their affectvie trust collapses, and transform their affective trust into informed cognitive trust.
Low Credibility:Low Trust
A LC:LT relationship means your words and deeds are neither consistent nor aligned and people are fully aware of it. This is a cognitive distrust scenario. In relationships like these it can be tempting to just call it quits but, given enough time and a deliberate plan, you can restore your credibility and gain (or regain!) the cognitive trust you need.
Trust is Just One Cornerstone of Your CBL Foundation
As a leader, you can build vital trust within your team and of your organization by making it a priority to be consistent in words and deeds and close detrimental say-do gaps. But trust is merely one of four CBL cornerstones. Whatever your personal leadership philosophy and style, you can strengthen it by building on a solid CBL foundation. While enduring leadership success requires trust, remember it is impossible to lead without communicating, your communication capacity is finite, and leadership is about relationships.
Continue to follow us here at the Blog of Hard NoCs to learn more about credibility, trust, and how to put CBL to work for you. We’ll share more about trust and credibility, their importance to leaders and organizations, how quickly both can erode, and strategies to help you avoid a meltdown.
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Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.