Leadership & Management

Roderick Kramer: How Do Trustworthy Leaders Behave?

A scholar explains some signs that a boss has your — and the organization’s — best interests at heart.

September 19, 2014

| by Loren Mooney


Ed Catmull and colleagues

Pixar and Disney Animation president Ed Catmull (left) has instituted workshops designed to educate colleagues about how the company views trustworthiness. | Reuters/Regis Duvignau

It can be easy to trust too quickly, especially when a leader is affable, has an impressive résumé, and tells you what you want to hear. In 30 years of surveying senior executives, social psychologist Roderick Kramer has found that 8 out of 10 report being burned at least once because they trusted too much or put their faith in the wrong person at some point in their careers.

It’s important for an organization to build trust among workers for several reasons, says Kramer. Employees who know they can trust their leaders are happy workers who believe in what they are doing. Creating this trust from within can also lead to public trust. “A lot of leaders talk about public trust, then they focus on the impression-management side of things,” says Kramer, “it’s much more important to establish genuine trust within your organization, which leads to trustworthy performance, which then builds over time into a public reputation of being trustworthy.”

With surveys from Edelman, Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, and others reporting public trust in business and government leaders at near historic lows, Kramer says it’s a good time for leaders to build a trustworthy reputation. “People are looking for leaders they can trust, and so there’s a lot of capital sitting on the table for leaders who can get the equation right.” So how do truly trustworthy leaders behave?

They project confidence, competence, and benevolence.

Research shows that trustworthy leaders demonstrate that they have the skills and knowledge to steer the organization, that they don’t shy from straight talk, and that they are acting in the best interests of the organization, rather than in their own best interests.

“These things sound obvious, but still it’s important to look for ways to communicate them,” says Kramer. “Several people have written about the importance of leading by walking around — being present, accessible. Leaders like this leave a good impression as tangible, real people.”

They say — and show — that trust is an important company value.

In a way, good leaders are trust teachers, says Kramer. “They talk about the importance of trust, so that people know the leader values it, and that there will be consequences if that trust is violated.” He notes that at Pixar, a company known for creating animated films that kids love and parents can trust, CEO Ed Catmull has instituted workshops specifically to educate colleagues about how the company views trustworthiness.

As an example of demonstrating trust in employees, Kramer cites Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and his policy whereby employees directly hire new people to work on their teams, rather than relying on a system of centralized hiring through HR. “He’s pushing the decision-making process from the top down to the people who are going to have to live with the consequences of those decisions, and that doesn’t happen in many organizations,” says Kramer.

They establish clear roles and systems to speed trust.

While one leader’s behavior can set a tone of trustworthiness, the entire company needs to have rules that enable trust to permeate a group’s culture, Kramer has found in his research. “When people know what they’re supposed to do, and they know what other people are supposed to do, then they trust that system of roles to work.”

He points to Pixar’s “Braintrust,” which Catmull describes in his book, Creativity, Inc., the process by which the company’s top minds relentlessly vet creative ideas and identify a project’s problems. Because the system is so rigorous and well defined, it engenders trust in the ideas that are deemed good enough to move forward. “And once you’ve had a history of success with that culture of rules, it becomes a background expectation,” says Kramer, a state he calls presumptive trust, which in turn leads to trustworthy performance.

They share the credit, and they take the blame.

Because leaders are highly visible, people both within an organization and outside the organization tend to overweight their responsibility for successes and failures, a phenomenon the late Harvard scholar Richard Hackman called the “leader attribution error.” For example, look at the success of the late Steve Jobs, says Kramer. “Many creative minds at Apple contributed to the development of the iPhone, but in the mainstream Jobs got the credit.”

Leaders can beneficially exploit this phenomenon to build trust by being out in front of the organization’s decisions, says Kramer, so that when good things happen, people recognize that the leader was in charge of the process, even though he or she might share the credit. “And there’s a little bit of evidence that suggests that when leaders are generous at sharing credit, they actually are more trusted,” he says. “It shows that they are fully confident.” Likewise, demonstrating confidence by admitting full responsibility when something goes wrong — even if the leader wasn’t fully responsible — can in some cases enhance a leader’s reputation.

They don’t mask a crisis.

“One of the fatal mistakes many organizational leaders make is not the initial misstep that causes the crisis; it’s the cover-up — the attempt to spin it or mask the problem,” he says. People quickly lose confidence in leaders who do this, says Kramer, pointing to bankers during and following the 2008 financial crisis. “I think some of the disenchantment with Wall Street was that leaders didn’t really take responsibility for their errors,” he says. “They blamed the system, or imprecise regulation — and people don’t like that because it’s a dodge.”

Instead, Kramer suggests, acknowledge the problem quickly, take swift and decisive action to address it, and put in place measures to prevent its reoccurrence. If the problem involves a defective product, recall it “and make a very public display of the new safeguards or policies that will prevent it from happening again.” In a recent book with Todd Pittinsky, Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders, Kramer suggests it is possible for leaders and organizations to regain the public’s trust, but it isn’t easy.

Roderick Kramer is the William R. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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