19 Apr 2018 17:30 IST

Trust me: shifting from empty talk to meaningful communication

Pic credit: runeer/iStock.com

It is a powerful phrase when used by the right leader at the right time

In the middle of the cash shortage we’re currently facing, there was a supposedly reassuring tweet from the Indian Finance Minister. “Trust us,” it said, “There’s no cash shortage”.

That phrase, ‘trust us’, or its more personal variation ‘trust me’, is often used by a leader when she asks the team to head towards a destination they cannot see. Sometimes, she uses that phrase when things are terrible; when a crisis threatens the organisation and the leader wishes to stand as a beacon of hope, effectively saying, ‘Trust me to get you out of this mess; till then, hold fast’. It is a powerful phrase when used by the right leader at the right time.

But it can just as easily turn into an impotent phrase when used by a poor leader at an inappropriate time. What are some of the things that shift this expression from empty talk to inspirational communication?

Walking the talk

Many times, leaders tend to mouth this phrase cocooned within their ivory tower, removed from the reality of the situation. Our Finance Minister’s tweet, for example, rings hollow because no one believes he has ever spent a second in an ATM queue. So effectively, he’s asking the team to walk a bridge he has never crossed, nor will ever cross. This destroys the ‘trust me’ credibility.

Instead, if a leader is right there in the middle of the action, facing the fire, putting in the late hours, sacrificing family time, taking a compensation cut, getting in the firing line of angry customers, then she builds credibility .

Teams will trust a leader who walks with them rather than over them. As the saying goes, there is a big difference between leading an organisation and presiding over it. Teams need to feel that the leader has their best interests at heart; they need to know that the leader would subject herself to a personal loss to safeguard the team and the organisation.

Teams need to trust the person behind the words; and nothing builds trust in a person more than walking the talk.

Keeping commitments

Has the leader built a track record of meaning what she says and saying what she means? Has she delivered on past promises? A record of keeping commitments builds a relationship of trust. Without a trusted relationship, the most powerful and well-phrased communication can fall flat and have the opposite impact — of discouraging and frustrating the team.

Sometimes, leaders take a cafeteria approach, saying that small promises can be broken; only the big ones need to be kept. But very often, it is the small broken promises that lead to a breakdown of trust. Teams then think ‘If she can’t keep her word on an off time that was granted and then revoked, how do we believe her when she says ‘trust me’?

The bottom-line is: commitments must be made carefully and then kept — big or small. Where there is a risk of a commitment not being kept because of circumstances outside everybody’s control, the leader has to give everyone a heads up on what will happen and why it is short of what was promised.

When there is trust, it is easier to handle the inevitable questions or doubts that come up. When there is a lack of trust, every answer from the leader will be met with suspicion. Decisions will be delayed and even when they are acted upon, the whole organisation will be tentative. On the other hand, trust spreads confidence, puts speed into decisions and actions and allows everyone to move forward without distraction towards resolving the problems they are facing.

Leaders must also have the competence, character and conviction that inspires confidence. The team must know that the leader has the necessary skill to pull the team through, that she will have the strength of character to survive the tough phase and the conviction that will drive long-term choices. This makes the leader ‘trustable’ and is an ongoing way of living and leading — it is not something that can be switched on along with a phrase.

Reality or illusion?

One of the reasons ‘trust me’ is used is because the team isn’t able to see too clearly into the future because of a prevalent situation.

There is darkness, and the team counts on the leader to speak the truth. So, when a leader paints a false picture, he is not only deluding the team, but also himself, and setting the organisation up for failure.

In the movie The Darkest Hour, Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, makes a choice that he cannot hide a truth from the British public and from the Parliament. Gary Oldman brilliantly portrays Churchill’s dilemma. He cannot conjure false pictures of easy victories and rapid success, and so, chooses to lay it all bare: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’.

Counter-intuitively, it turned out to be an inspiring war cry, a powerful call to courage and perseverance. Some leaders choose to obfuscate, to paint a ‘nothing’s wrong’ picture, but real leaders choose to face reality and be transparent and honest in their communication to the team.

When the leader is honest, she delivers an even more powerful message than ‘trust me’ — she delivers ‘I trust you’. “I trust you to hear the truth and stay calm, to put in your best for the team, to be with us through this journey from darkness to light.” People respond with amazing energy, enthusiasm and courage when they realize they are trusted.

So great leaders not only learn to be ‘trustable’, they also learn to trust.

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