Issues 2012: Leadership is a Relationship, The Trust Equation

Several years ago, I was in a meeting with leadership expert Michael Maccoby when he was asked the difference between leadership and management. He gave very simple, elegant response.Management,” he said, “is a role. Leadership is a relationship.” Leaders are not leaders without followers. People don’t follow because someone has a title. They follow because a leader has created a connection to something in which they want to participate.

As we know, leaders’ relationships with their people are somewhat strained these days. Trust, a key part of any relationship, has been damaged by the financial crisis, the recession, corporate responses to the recession that were often necessary, but also very difficult. Rebuilding leadership trust and our relationships with those we work with is a critical component of engagement and for moving our companies forward in 2012.

If leadership is a relationship, how do we build real relationships at work? Not transactional relationships where we are focused on the tasks and activities needed to get work done, but relationships where we are creating a work environment where the sum is greater than the parts.

In his book, The Trusted Advisor, David Maister discusses the trust equation, a formula for building sustained partnership with others. While he discusses the equation’s importance to business advisors, it describes the elements of trust that are key to real leadership.

The trust equation is:

Trust = C + R + I

C is credibility. Leadership credibility has two components. The first is how much your team believes your words and actions. The second is to what degree you have the know-how, experience or background to know what you are talking about. On the one hand its objective — do you have the ‘qualifications’ to be a leader. On the other hand it’s an emotional response. Do I perceive you as being believable? Do your actions reflect truthfulness? Do you have truthful intent? How many experiences have we all had over the past 18 months that made us question the truthfulness of those we considered leaders? What’s the lingering impact on our workplaces?

R is reliability. People need to know they can count on leaders, that the leader will walk the walk and talk the talk. Leaders need to follow- through on promises and follow-up on commitments. There needs to be a sense of predictability and fairness in the way a leader approaches situations and people every single day. Otherwise, the relational bank account that funds trust goes into the red.

In the Trust Equation, I is intimacy or the ability create a personal connection. This does not mean that as a leader you need to share your private life or dwell on the private lives of your people. It means recognizing that work is a personal place and issues like career development, promotions, compensation, reorganizations, hiring and firing are intensely personal. As a leader, the willingness to have emotional honesty about these and other issues in the workplace increases the trust your team has in you and the commitment they have to your agenda.

Credibility, reliability and intimacy’s additive effect is mitigated by how much others perceive a leader is acting primarily out of self-concern. If others believe a leader building a ‘relationship’ primarily to serve his or her own interests — i.e., to advance his or her career, to manipulate a situation for advantage without regard to the goals, needs and struggles of others, to push off responsibility and blame others– trust is destroyed, the relationship is seen as disingenuous and engagement and commitment plummet.

As you look at engagement and commitment in your organizations this year, think about your own trust equation. To what degree have you developed a real relationship with your people?

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