As Good as the Last Promise Kept

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why the trustworthiness we want to see in others actually starts with ourselves.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

Trust is an investment, earning interest over time. And one errant withdrawal can lose it all. Yet, being trusting or being trustworthy are actually two different sides of the same coin.

Given the number of people we place in jobs—one every three minutes of the working day—we have seen and heard just about everything. One of my colleagues recalled an experience from earlier in his career—a candidate who stated that he was proficient in Kiikaonde, a dialect spoken in central Africa. This recruiter was also fluent in the language.

My colleague greeted the candidate warmly in Kiikaonde. No response. A simpler greeting—still no response. “I take it you’re not proficient in Kiikaonde,” my colleague said. “No,” the candidate replied. “I took this two-day seminar. We learned a few words….” Needless to say, things went downhill from there—and trust was never established.

Trust me. If ever a statement has the opposite effect of its intended meaning, it’s this one. We’re not likely to give our trust to just anyone—and especially not just because they say those two words. To truly trust another person, there needs to be a two-way contract of sorts—a promise based on character, capability, and follow-through.

Trustworthiness is the other side of the coin. It literally means being worthy of others’ trust—and it’s an aspiration for anyone, at any level. In fact, our firm tests for trustworthiness as a key leadership trait. Based on nearly 70 million executive assessments, we know it’s not binary. There are several layers and levels between being trustworthy and untrustworthy. There are those who do it well, such as the person who “actively promotes and protects the interest of others”—and those who do it poorly, such as a person who “undermines others” or “distorts the facts with [their] own biases and agenda.”

But words alone won’t suffice when it comes to being perceived as trustworthy—far more important is what others experience. Over the past year, society has made a lot of promises—to walk in others’ shoes, to listen before we speak, to be more tolerant, to be more inclusive. To be trustworthy is to be inclusive. Diversity is a fact – therefore inclusion is essential.

We must say what we mean and do what we say. There can be no daylight between the two. As James Lewis, a senior scientist in the Korn Ferry Institute, told me this week, “Being trustworthy is about showing it—not just telling it. And that happens over time.” After all, we’re only as good as our last promise kept.

A few years ago, I flew into the Midwest for business, arriving well after midnight. There I was, driving a rental car along unfamiliar, pitch dark country roads. I could only see as far as my headlights allowed. My only hope was that oncoming cars saw me as they rounded a curve or crested a hill.

All I had to guide me were the left and right lines that kept me in my own lane. By being a trustworthy driver, though, I had a better chance of keeping myself and others safe on that road. That’s what I could control—not the driver approaching from the other side.

Within organizations today, trust and belief form two lanes of the highway, while unwavering commitment, continuous communication, and purposeful action paint the stripes down the middle. The values of the organization are the left and right guardrails, keeping us moving forward toward our destination.

So what builds trustworthiness? The answer can be found in a six pack of soda and a handful of dollar bills. Author and researcher Dan Ariely conducted an experiment a few years ago in which six packs of soda were left randomly in dorm refrigerators all over a college campus. Within days, every can was taken. Later, when six loose dollar bills were left instead, not one was touched. The difference? It comes down to values. While a soda in a refrigerator may seem like fair game, it’s unthinkable for most people to take someone else’s money.

That’s why the trustworthiness we want to see in others actually starts with ourselves. Here are some thoughts:

·  Trust taking flight. My son has recently learned to fly. Do I trust him—that he is putting in the flying hours? Yes. Do I trust him enough right now to take me flying? Soon. This has nothing to do with his character. Rather, it’s about the continued development of his capabilities. As much as we might like to think of ourselves as being trusting, are we really? Early in my career, during a performance review, my boss told me, “Gary, you’re not always trusting of others.” It just didn’t come easy to me. But when we focus on our own trustworthiness, performance improves across the board. In fact, a recent analysis of 360-degree reviews of executives by our firm found that leaders who were viewed as instilling trust, making good decisions, and collaborating well with others were anywhere from twice to four times more likely to be rated as high performers.

·  Our say/do ratio. We do what we say and say what we mean. It comes down to having a say/do ratio of 1-to-1. Others will know they can trust our words by observing our consistent actions. Then, and only then, will they mirror what we say and do. In the opposite scenario, distrust corrodes everything it touches. Moreover, when people work for a trustworthy leader, they are more likely to be motivated and inspired, show persistence when work is challenging, and learn from failures instead of being fearful of making mistakes. Bottom line: the more trustworthy the environment, the less stress people experience—and the more productive they are.

·  Trust sets others free. Where trust exists, people speak their minds. Feedback flows from bottom to top and back down again. But if a leader repeats the stories heard or, worse yet, attributes names, that skip-level feedback will never be forthcoming again. People will default to saying only what they think leaders want to hear. Not long ago, we were convening a global videoconference, and I purposefully joined first to make sure it was working. Then I turned off my camera and muted my sound while I made myself a cup of coffee. When I tuned back in as people joined, I heard the casual tone of their conversation—and participated in the small talk. It’s up to all of us to make sure others truly feel comfortable saying what needs to be said.

·  Say what you mean, mean what you say. Years ago, I wanted to try an exercise among my leadership team—and it was all about communication and trust. I used the “telephone game” from childhood. (Silly, yes, but in the end, effective.) I started off the game by whispering a simple phrase to the person next to me: “Communication is where leadership lives and breathes.” That person then whispered the phrase to the next person, and that person to the next ... through 15 different people. Then the last person announced proudly what they were sure they had heard: “Call me on vacation when your ship leaves.” We all laughed … but the point was made. If there is one broken link in communication, no one knows who or what to trust.

It comes down to one simple, but profound statement: do it, mean it, say it, believe it—for we are only as good as the last promise kept.