In the outstanding book Servant Leadership in Action -- a collection of essays by forty-four renowned servant leadership experts and practitioners -- best-selling author Stephen M.R. Covey offers up the litmus test that defines the best servant leaders. He writes:

"The answer is trust. Trust is the litmus test. Trust is to servant leadership what profit is to a business. It's the outcome. It's the core measure. The scoreboard."

That said, I'll ask my readers the same question Covey asked his: What is the level -- and quality -- of trust you have with the people you lead? 

There are some hard truths about Covey's leadership litmus test. For one, trust is the key to sustainable change.  Without trust, any progress will be short term and fleeting.  Productivity and profitability will suffer at least in the long term. 

Trust is also an important aspect of innovation, because innovation usually involves at least some failure.  In non-trust environments, people will not want to risk failure for a chance to succeed.

The servant leader's primary agenda of trust

Covey says that servant leaders are different because their true intent is purely and simply to serve others, which builds trust. He writes, "Servant leaders are motivated by caring and the agenda they seek is mutual benefit: 'I want to win -- but it is even more important to me that you win.'"

Covey references Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, who clearly declared his intent to serve when he decided to cut his own salary to $1 and skip any future stock options or bonuses. In a now-famous company letter to his employees written in 2007, Mackey wrote:

"The tremendous success of Whole Foods Market has provided me with far more money than I ever dreamed I'd have and far more than is necessary for either my financial security or personal happiness.... I am now 53 years old and I have reached a place in my life where I no longer want to work for money, but simply for the joy of the work itself and to better answer the call to service that I feel so clearly in my own heart. Beginning on January 1, 2007, my salary will be reduced to $1, and I will no longer take any other cash compensation.... The intention of the board of directors is for Whole Foods Market to donate all of the future stock options I would be eligible to receive to our two company foundations."

Unlike other high-profile CEOs that make a $1 salary -- but in reality, they make millions when you add up all the stock, options, and other perks -- Mackey's total pay was just over $69,000.

Covey says Mackey's letter reawakened aspirations in Whole Foods employees to pursue the company mission with new commitment, and increased Mackey's credibility as their leader during a phase of fast growth.

6 important steps toward building a culture of trust

If any of this resonates with my readers in high leadership positions, there are both small and big steps to improve trust factors that will increase employee loyalty and boost collaboration and retention. To lay down strategy, the six steps below is a good way to get started and achieve some measurable progress. 

1. Find out the level of trust.

Review the company values and interview leaders and employees for their perspectives. If applicable, take a look at past company engagement surveys. Talk with partners, customers and community members to get their viewpoints on what is promised and delivered.

2. Promote trust.

Spread the word and share stories that support a trusting relationship among peers and coworkers, customers and employees, and managers and their subordinates. Praise and recognize others who earn and extend trust. Start conversations about how to further propagate the message. Make space in weekly meetings, town-halls, and one-on-ones to highlight examples of exemplary behavior. And always reinforce the values.

3. Get people involved.

Devise strategies that allow for people to participate in activities that build and extend trust. As leaders, you want to build work communities where people are allowed and expected to safely provide input and debate their best ideas. Share your commitment to a trusting workforce with fellow community members and industry peers. And always follow-through on your obligations to become self-reliant and push for more trust even if the larger organization is not responsive.

4. Incorporate trust into performance management.

From a human resources standpoint, it would behoove leaders and HR people to revise processes and identify key performance indicators that lead to more trust. That means incorporating trust criteria into performance and succession management processes, adjusting hiring profiles and job descriptions, and establishing metrics and accountability for promotion and development. 

5. Seek input.

If you're hoping to build a trustworthy work culture, get ready to start talking about your people's work -- a lot. In one report published by PeopleFluent, half of all Millennials surveyed said they value performance reviews, but at least monthly, if not more frequently. Only 9.8 percent prefer the dinosaur-era, annual version. Companies like Officevibe make a living out of this, providing "always on" pulse surveys -- backed by science -- delivered weekly to drive culture, engagement, and performance.

6. Share information.

Information is power and one of the best ways to build a sense of trust in people. It may mean disclosing information that is considered privileged, but it communicates trust and a sense of "hey, we're all in this together."

Published on: Jun 14, 2018
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