2 July 2018

Truth is about more than
the rules.

Who do you trust? Trust is one of the most significant issues of our time. To varying degrees, many people today are distrustful of institutions such as politics, business, religion, science, and the media.

What’s at stake when we lose trust? Trust is the great invisible force that binds us as a society. When trust is absent, much of what we take for granted begins to crumble. It is a path that leads to suspicion, cynicism, and negativity.

When we talk about losing trust in an organisation or institution, it’s easy to forget we are talking about people. No organisation, no institution, exists without people. People drive culture. For an organisation to function well, to be trustworthy, people have to be working in alignment with a shared purpose.

Leaders play a significant role in this process by setting standards and upholding those standards by their conduct. Leaders build, display, and communicate trust. Trust comes to embody and characterise every interaction inside and outside an organisation. 

When trust becomes a problem, people very often reach first for rules and regulations as a remedy, especially so in the world of business, where we often see more regulations enacted in the hope of fixing such issues. Speaking recently to one of our esteemed CEO Circle group chairmen, Mr John Churchill, he wisely said to me that “when you govern by rules, people lose integrity and values.”  

“The rule book approach can have a completely adverse impact upon the creation of values and culture. Rather than rely upon enforcement, you should be relying upon basic inbred values and judgments. It is all too convenient to raise as an excuse ‘I was only following the rules’ rather than asking and answering the question ‘Is this right?’ Leaders must give people purpose, and that has very little to do with rules,” he said.

Without doubt, many areas of business and life require rules and regulations. Rules encourage compliance. But we should not mistake rules-based compliance for trust. Rules can be twisted, bent, and broken. We can follow the letter of the law while disregarding its spirit.

Leaders should do more than follow the rules. They should be open, honest, and transparent in what they say. Their actions and decision-making should be thoughtful and considered. Their behaviour should always uphold the highest values. Above all, they should know and communicate their organisation’s purpose and help employees understand that purpose.

Without purpose, people lose direction. They lose their bearings. When people understand their mission, they gain direction and meaning. They begin to understand reciprocity and responsibility as the grounds for ethical behaviour, as the basis for values, as the foundation for trust and their greater success.

If you think trust is an airy concept that sounds nice but has no real world consequence, think again. Stephen Covey highlights the very real effect trust has on our business relationships with this formulation: low trust = low speed and high costs; high trust = high speed and low costs. Trust is one of the most valuable and powerful assets any business can possess.

Trust is hard earned but quickly lost. As Warren Buffett says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Who should you trust? As a leader, the first person you should trust is yourself. Hold yourself to the standards you expect each and every day. Honour your integrity. Give others someone they can believe.

Make your organisation one that does more than follows the rules; place trust at the heart of all it does, as the driving force to its purpose. Know your purpose and lead with trust.

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