The Trust Imperative: Part II

Last week, I published the first half of my interview with Aneil Mishra, Ph.D.. Mishra is a respected author and business school professor who studies the link between trustworthiness, leadership and organizational performance. He discussed the four main qualities of trustworthy leaders – reliability, openness, competence and compassion – and his latest research regarding which of these qualities might matter most in the current economy.

The interview concludes this week with a discussion of how law firm leaders can build trust within their organizations and how this can create competitive advantage in an era when trust in leadership seems to be at an all time low.

Q. What are the signs that there is a deficit of trust within an organization?

There are several classic signs. You’ll start seeing disconnects, mistakes or problems occurring because people are miscommunicating, not collaborating or not communicating at all across boundaries. It could be something as simple as missed deadlines or a failure to meet project objectives.

People with a lot of human and social capital will walk out the door and not tell you why (but it’s often because they’ve lost their trust in their colleagues or the leader).

When I’m brought in to work with companies, it can be because there’s been a breakdown in trust. This is often the result of an erosion of interactions that should be occurring over time – communicating, collaborating, working together. Sometimes, though, trust isn’t deliberately developed in the first place. Or, “healthy” organizations, which have seen the benefits of trust, want to increase it among their employees, customers and suppliers.

Q. How can leaders begin to repair damage?

First, it requires a great deal of self-awareness and humility on the leader’s part. A leader needs to be aware that lasting positive change cannot be created alone, regardless of how smart the leader is or how much authority or resources are at his or her disposal. Mistakes need to be acknowledged. Apologies need to be made.

Second, leaders need to find trustworthy people to work with in order to affect change throughout the firm. They might be in the top management group, but they could also be found at any level in the firm. Leaders need to recognize that through teams – through collaboration with others – they’ll be able to create a great change effort. To do that, they need to build groups that trust each other.

Aneil Mishra, Ph.D.

Aneil Misrha, Ph.D.

Once the leadership group establishes trust within its team, it begins to set an example and inspire others. It doesn’t just protect it’s own interest; it reaches out. But others will only collaborate and work with you if they trust you.

“You might consider managers or practice group leaders to be competent, worthy partners but the feeling might not be mutual. You’ll need to accept that some might not want to jointly pool resources or share risk, unless they trust that you will reciprocate and not unduly punish them for an honest mistake.”

This starts to create a culture of trust that builds traction and moves the firm toward its goals.

Q. How does the concept of reciprocity factor into this?

The norm of reciprocity isn’t really a norm any more (if it ever was). As much as we would love to have lots of trustworthy people and organizations and entities out there to work with, the truth is that it really is rare. This is partly because of basic self-interested behavior, which may be reinforced by a tough economy where people are very self-protective.

This climate makes trust-building activities difficult, because people or units/departments might not share the human or financial resources that are so critical for innovation. Instead, they will think “I’m not going to give you these resources now, because I know you won’t reciprocate later on when I need it.” Progress stagnates because internal relationships can remain frozen for a long time.

Q. This sounds an exhausting endeavour for most law firm leaders. Is it?

It can be. There are few leaders with the personal wherewithal, energy and time to get started. And when they encounter the inevitable setbacks or cynicism, they need to have enough courage or self-confidence to know that what they’re trying to achieve in their firm is the right thing to do and that it will eventually succeed. It requires a huge amount of energy.

For me, it’s critical to create a small group of people that I can trust and feed off who will serve as an advisory board to remind me of the purpose of my efforts. If you create an advisory board, it could include outsiders as well as insiders.

Realize that whatever you say and do early on will be watched very, very closely. This is especially true if you’re new to an organization or if you’re starting a significant change effort. It’s also important to remember how significant little actions can be. Symbolic acts can become substantive later on if you make sacrifices and follow through again and again. People remember a kind gesture or a sacrifice more often than you’d think.

 Q. Any parting advice?

Trust is really more important in certain contexts than others. It isn’t critical in every situation. It is most valuable when you are in a situation where you are highly vulnerable or things are highly uncertain. This is certainly the case in a legal dispute, where there is a lot of conflict and stress embedded in the situation. If the lawyers can develop trust between parties or with opposing counsel despite the conflict, the clients will emerge much more satisfied with a solution than if everyone views it as a zero sum game or a transaction.


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A version of this post was originally published by Natasha Chetty on the Canadian legal blog, on September 24, 2014.