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Can We Trust Our Leaders? Should We?

© Personnel Today
An Oregon psychologist's take on trusting leaders, and how a trustworthy leader is the most effective.

Portland, OR, August 20, 2018— This week’s news about the Pennsylvania Catholic church scandal has people wondering again about the integrity of Catholic leadership, and the church’s ability to protect the vulnerable. In other news this week, the Manafort trial has continued, waiting on a jury decision. Manafort (President Trump’s former campaign chairman) has been charged with tax evasion and bank fraud. Read on through the news headlines and you find even more discouraging news about unethical and unseemly behavior by people in power (or maybe don’t, if you prefer to start your week bright-eyed and hopeful).

Hopefully, despite disappointment in our leaders, we have each had experiences with trustworthy leaders, ones who we put our faith in and who didn’t let us down. What you might not already know is that organizational psychology has helped uncover shifts in effective leadership approaches. These shifts lead to workers who work harder and produce more. However, these shifts in leadership require a relationship and trust between the leader and the led. It turns out, the progress of our culture and communities depends on relational leaders that use good, open communication, keep promises and commitments, admit when mistakes are made, and balance both technical and people skills.

Traditionally, Command-and-Control leadership was viewed as the most effective, a strategy where leaders hold the power and make the decisions, handing them down to the led. In this model, little power is given to the led. Currently, however, effective leaders use more people-oriented leadership (POL). POL is built on relationship between the leader and the led, working together in decision-making, and more open communication. POL builds morale, enabling the led to feel heard and valued. Further, POL increases efficiency and builds loyalty.

Distrust of leadership, however, has been shown to lower employee morale, enthusiasm, commitment, and productivity. At the same time, distrust of leadership results in more employee turnover, absenteeism, and use of sick leave. In these ways, maintaining a culture of distrust is an expensive and ill-fated leadership strategy. These leaders slow the pace of progress.

How Does a Leader Build Trust?

Poor leadership is not a life sentence, however, because our science shows us that when leaders change, so do the work cultures they grow. What can leaders do to grow healthy and effective work cultures?

1.     Effective leaders use more open communication. They listen to the ideas of their led, and explain both the “what” and the “why” of decisions.

2.     Effective leaders are people of good character. They are people who keep promises and commitments, and openly admit when they have made a mistake.

3.     Effective leaders have good people skills as well as technical skills in their field. Rather than selecting leaders based purely on their specific job skills, effective leaders also work well on teams and manage coworker relationships well.

As we (hopefully) move forward in progress, we need leaders to instill trust in the led. Not blind command-and-control trust, but trust grown from relationship. This kind of trust comes from seeing our leaders approach hard decisions bravely, struggle honestly, and work to empower the led. A corrupt campaign chair might say, “I have acted selfishly and without regard for the ways my behavior impacts society.” Abusive religious leaders might admit their failures (to themselves, their victims, and their public), resign, work to grow stronger in character, promote the healing of victims, and help prevent future abuses. Perhaps above all, the led will learn the importance of effective, people-oriented leaders, pushing those kinds of leaders into power, or rising up themselves to lead. Our world needs leaders we can trust.

- by Celeste Jones, PsyD, ABCCAP, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology- George Fox University, Public Education Coordinator- Oregon Psychological Association

Wilson, Casey. (2009). Trust: The critical factor in leadership: Leaders can build (or begin to rebuild) trust to foster a more engaged workforce. The Public Manager, 38(1), 48-52.


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