Leaders need to be trustworthy and have integrity.
There needs to be no gap between what they say and what they do.
Without integrity, we have nothing. Leaders who ask employees to do one thing, while they do another, cause immense harm.
This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found failure of leadership makes distrust the default.
Let’s read that again. Failure of leadership makes distrust the default. Ouch.
I’m saddened by this finding. The global study also found business is once again the most trusted institution (61%). This was ahead of NGOs at 59%, government at 52% and media at only 50%.
A critical finding for us to note as internal communicators is the fact 77% of respondents trust “My Employer,” making the relationship between employer and employee incredibly important.
Matters of trust – and why trust matters
Regular readers of this blog or listeners to my Candid Comms podcast will know I believe what happens inside is reflected outside.
I had the artwork on this page created exactly four years ago today, to mark All Things IC’s fifth business birthday.
Further reading: We’re celebrating our ninth business birthday today, 31 January 2022.
What happens inside being reflected outside means if you have a toxic culture, it seeps out. If you have a positive culture, it seeps out.
The headlines here in the UK are dominated at the moment about trust, leadership, integrity and ethics. Yes I’m talking about what’s happening at Number 10 Downing Street.
I rarely get political here on this blog, that’s been my stance for 13 years and I don’t intend to start.
Instead, I want to take the opportunity to reinforce why leaders’ behaviour matters and what we can do inside our own organisations.
Leaders set the tone for organisations. Their behaviour can cause a positive experience for employees or create an environment of fear and unease.
We want leaders to be seen as credible, reliable and trustworthy. But crucially, they need to actually be credible, reliable and trustworthy.
Trust comes through open and transparent relationships and having effective two-way communication channels in place.
Further reading on the All Things IC blog: Why leaders need to serve – featuring servant leadership. Published 2018.
As professional communicators, we spend a lot of time seeking out sources of truth in organisations, amplifying voices and creating a shared understanding and meaning.
Why? That’s the purpose behind internal communication, it’s why our roles exist. We’re not here to tell people what to do, but to create a shared understanding and meaning, that allows employees to align their efforts to the company’s goals, purpose and ambition.
Leaders who are not trustworthy, are unethical or who lack integrity make our job impossible.
Integrity isn’t a nice to have, it’s essential. I cannot bear unethical practices inside organisations.
I detest seeing leaders lie, distort the truth and trying to dupe employees, customers and interested parties.
The first people to know the truth are employees. They can see integrity gaps a mile off.
Further reading: How to communicate your brand’s integrity.
Failures of leadership
Ethics are personal.
Just as everybody thinks they have a good sense of humour, so everyone thinks they are ethical.
As professional communicators, we seek out ethical behaviour in companies and amplify it.
Failures of leadership happen when integrity is broken and there’s a do-say gap.
If you know your employee engagement theory, you’ll recognise that as one of the four drivers of employee engagement from Engage for Success:
- Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative about the organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going.
- Engaging managers who focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch their people
- Employee voice throughout the organisation, reinforcing and challenging views, between functions and externally. Employees are seen not as the problem, rather as central to the solution, to be involved, listened to, and invited to contribute their experience, expertise and ideas.
- Organisational integrity – the values on the wall are reflected in day-to-day behaviours. There is no ‘say – do’ gap. Promises made and promises kept, or an explanation given as to why not.
If you look at these enablers (also known as drivers), it calls for visible, empowering leadership.
How visible and empowering are your leaders? Is there a gap between what they are saying and doing?
I’ve recently updated the explanations above as there’s more detail on the Engage for Success website. The addition under integrity of: “Promises made and promises kept, or an explanation given as to why not” jumps out at me.
What promises are your leaders making? Who is holding them to account?
The only way is ethics
Seven years ago I published an article on the All Things IC blog called The only way is ethics, which featured the Institute of Business Ethics.
Katherine Bradshaw, who was Communications Manager at the time, wrote in that article:
“The Institute of Business Ethics defines business ethics as the ‘application of ethical values to business behaviour’
In short it is about how business is done:
- Are employees treated with dignity and respect?
- Are customers treated fairly?
- Are suppliers paid on-time?
- Does it acknowledge its responsibilities to wider society?
Sometimes, unethical behaviour may be so ingrained into a company’s culture as to be considered ‘the way business is done around here’, and so may not be considered unethical at all.
Further reading: What IC pros need to know about culture – published January 2022.
Katherine wrote: “Whether those stories create an ethical narrative is another matter. Sometimes stories from the top (do as I say, not as I do); or those told by team leaders (whatever it takes); or from colleagues (everybody’s doing it) can lead to a very different culture than that espoused by the company’s stated core values.
‘The way things are done around here’, may subtly be working against the company’s ethical values. No matter what communications come from Head Office, employees will communicate their own stories regardless.
So for example, the organisation may say that retaliation against those who speak up will not be tolerated; but the reality may be that employees believe the opposite to be the case, through the stories which are shared.
Discussions about ethics must start with concepts that touch employees’ sense of self.”
Further reading: The only way is ethics – by Katherine Bradshaw. Published on the All Things IC blog 1 May 2015.
Why leaders need to have integrity
Let’s turn our attention back to The Edelman Trust Barometer. This global annual study of trust is widely respected and I’ve featured it many times on the All Things IC blog.
It captures the views of 36,000 people across 28 countries and is always a valuable read for internal communicators and people interested in the way companies communicate.
This year’s global report found distrust is now society’s default emotion.
Nearly six in 10 people say their default tendency is to distrust something until they see evidence it is trustworthy. Another 64% say it’s now to a point where people are incapable of having constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on. When distrust is the default – we lack the ability to debate or collaborate.
Of the studied institutions, business is once again the most trusted at 61%, ahead of NGOs at 59%, government at 52% and media at only 50%. Seventy-seven percent of respondents, however, trust “My Employer,” making the relationship between employer and employee incredibly important.
Government and media fuel a cycle of distrust. Nearly one out of every two respondents view government and media as divisive forces in society—48% and 46%, respectively. Furthermore, government leaders and journalists are seen as the least trusted societal leaders today, with less than half of respondents trusting either (government leaders at 42% and journalists at 46%).
Edelman state: “Business must lead in breaking the cycle of distrust across every single issue, by a huge margin, people want more business engagement, not less. For example, on climate change, 52% say business is not doing enough, while only 9% say it is overstepping. The role and expectation for business has never been clearer, and business must recognise that its societal role is here to stay.”
You can read more about the Edelman Trust Barometer via their website.
How to restore integrity gaps and the cycle of distrust
In no particular order, here’s my advice to restore integrity gaps and help break that cycle of distrust. Some of these points require a response from both Comms and HR teams.
We’re often described as the conscience of an organisation over here in the IC corner, and the topic of integrity and trust embodies that.
- You need open dialogue inside your organisation. Everyone should feel empowered to call out poor behaviour and hold each other to account, irrespective of their positions in the company.
- Your values need to be more than words on your wall. Examine what you say about the company, what behaviour you cherish and reward, and how you can make sure values are embedded, not merely recited.
- Gather your evidence. If you think leader/s are mistrusted, or there’s a culture of distrust, what evidence do you have? Take time to properly listen and gather qualitative data and insights. What’s the sentiment and anecdotal feedback?
- Communicate the consequences. What happens if trust is broken? What’s the impact and consequence of poor behaviour? Where does accountability lay inside your organisation?
- Pinpoint the problem. If there is toxicity among your leaders, is it all of them? One person? The whole Exec team? What quantifies that toxicity? Is it their words, actions, or thoughts?
- Empower local leaders. How well informed are your local leaders? If there is a culture of mistrust at the most senior level, the impact can be reduced by having empowered local leaders. This can create silos and a “them and us” mentality, which is far from ideal. However, local leaders have active relationships with employees and know their people best. They can enhance employee experience, which is helpful while the issues at the top are addressed.
- Listen, listen, listen. Create an environment of openness. Make it OK to say the unsayable things, it helps loosen their grip.
- Provide credible information. Fact check everything to make sure your internal communication is a credible source of truth.
- Focus on long-term thinking. This is a recommendation from Edelman, which I agree with. This means solutions over divisiveness; leadership must focus on long-term thinking over short-term gain.
- Demonstrate progress. If you are working on building or rebuilding trust with your leaders or your organisation, what does success look like? What progress are you making? Communicate as you go and demonstrate you are listening, committing to action and aware of the steps you need to take.
I hope you found this article useful to spark thoughts about your own work.
As ever, I’d love to know what you’re doing as a result of reading this article. Or if you have a story to share about leadership, integrity and trust, please see my blogging guidelines and get in touch.
I mentioned it’s our business birthday today. Thank you to everyone who has chosen to work with All Things IC since I founded the company exactly nine years ago. I’ve shared my thoughts via a post on LinkedIn.
Thank you for stopping by,
Post author: Rachel Miller, Founder, All Things IC.
First published on the All Things IC blog 31 January 2022.
Bang on. So true, and well reserved to not wade into the cesspool of real life examples. So far.