February 8, 2016

Whether they’re standing behind podiums, working the crowd or appealing to me on my TV screen, every candidate’s message is, at its core, the same:

You can trust me.

Some pledge to return America to greatness. Some promise to lower my taxes. Some assure me I won’t have to worry about competing for jobs with people from someplace else.

They promise, again and again, and we get to spend the better part of two years mulling whether any of these presidential candidates will get our trust — or at least our vote.

Watching the candidates jockey for my trust these past months got me thinking how hard the good managers in my career worked to earn and keep the trust of their staffs. Like candidates for public office, good managers know it’s imperative that they earn the staff’s trust — if they want their staffs to follow them, and not just obey.

In one important way, of course, your trust challenge as a manager is more difficult than the candidate’s.

The public goes to the polls on one day in November to vote on whether a candidate is trustworthy. Your staff votes on you every day. That’s why it’s so important to build a leadership style that seeks to build and maintain trust all the time — not just when you start a job or encounter a crisis. All the time.

Is it worth the effort? I vote yes, because trust is the foundation of all good relationships, in both our professional and personal lives. When I ask participants in my leadership seminars to list the qualities of a good relationship, trust typically ranks first. In a 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger observed that managers who emphasize their competence over their trustworthiness undermine their own leadership. They wrote:

Without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately—to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere, lasting way. Workplaces lacking in trust often have a culture of “every employee for himself,” in which people feel that they must be vigilant about protecting their interests.

So how do we earn trust? And how do we preserve it?

It seems to me these questions are crucial because watching the candidates also reminded me of two truths about trust:

  1. Saying “trust me” gets you very few votes. You have to do something that demonstrates you can be trusted.
  2. It’s fragile. Earning trust might take time (though I bet we could accomplish it in less than two years), but destroying it can happen in the space of minutes.

Ask Congress how fragile trust is. In a 2015 Gallup poll, only 8 percent of Americans expressed confidence in their senators and representatives. Obviously, the work of these individuals has failed to preserve the trust of the voters who sent them to Washington.

But trust is not only fragile in government. Just as today’s candidates have to overcome the sins of those who soiled the relationship between government and the public, so do newsroom managers have to overcome skepticism (even cynicism) born of the work of the leaders who preceded them.

They can’t just say, “you can trust me.” You have to earn it. And once gained, you can never take the staff’s trust for granted.

Here are eight ideas for building and maintaining trust. For the most part, I learned these from people I trust — some of them leaders, some of them reporters, photographers, producers, friends. I hope they help you.

Let people know your values — and live them. This is a true “walk the talk” moment — and both talking and walking matter. Being comfortable with talking to staff about your values sends an invitation to them to think about what they value and then embed those values in their work.

For the manager seeking the staff’s trust, the walk is crucial. If you say you value everyone’s ideas, you need to make sure the ideas you act upon actually come from people throughout the newsroom. If you say you value accuracy and speed, you need to insist upon reporting that meets certain standards before it’s published. If you say you believe in public service journalism, you need to devote staff time and resources to producing it.

Trust builds when others can see that your management reflects what you say you believe in — especially if they share those values. Don’t be shy about sharing yours, and consciously acting upon them.

Take a genuine interest in people. We all are more likely to place our trust in people whom we believe truly care about us. Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger use the word “warmth” to describe the quality that helps effective managers build a foundation of trust with their organizations. How can I demonstrate that I am interested in you?

I can ask you how you are doing — and really listen to your answer. I can make it my business to follow your work, and tell you from time to time what I think of it. I can ask you what you’re working on or how your project is going. I can look for ways to help you improve, either through training or peer-coaching or whatever other resources I have at my disposal. I can ask you what job you’d like to have someday and help you think about what you need to work on to make that dream a viable possibility.

You can demonstrate your interest in someone when you do anything that says, you are important and I’m here to help you. Remember, saying that is not enough. You have to do something.

Do what you say you will do. You know you’ve lost trust when the staff’s reaction to your announcement is, “We’ll see.” Just ask the leader who, in announcing the latest round of cuts, assures the staff that these decisions will now put the organization on solid ground. Recent history argues otherwise.

But this is not just about major announcements. If you tell a reporter you will read her story before 2 p.m. and get around to it at 6:30, trust begins to erode. If you say you will gather a group of staffers for 15-minute, check-in meetings each morning at 10 a.m. and then, after two meetings, begin canceling them twice a week, trust erodes. If you tell the staff to go after enterprise stories even if it means missing a routine story, and then critique the staff for missing a routine story, trust erodes.

This leads to another idea:

Don’t overpromise. Some of the most well-meaning bosses I know just couldn’t help themselves. They were so anxious to encourage their staffs or build up their optimism that they made promises they ultimately could not keep. Watching them made me realize that even good people can lose the staff’s trust.

They really believed that the staff would be able to add a few reporters in the months ahead; or that the company would upgrade the crash-prone pagination system, or that training dollars would become available in the next budget. When those things didn’t happen, though, skepticism seeped into the relationship between manager and staff.

Embrace transparency. Managers need to give the staff credit for being able to handle reality. Whether you’re in the front office or a desk in the middle of the newsroom, you know these are challenging times—times in which resources get cut, people lose jobs, businesses close. Much of that skepticism, in fact, stems from how aware the staff is that these are tough times. Am I suggesting that your conversation with the staff should become an endless “Woe is us?” Of course not. I am suggesting that when talking about decisions that you’ve either made or have to carry out, share as much of the “why” as possible. What metrics are you using? How is the company’s revenue picture? What other department’s needs trumped yours—and why? Share the “why” when the news is good, too. People are more likely to trust our decisions when they believe they were grounded in solid reasoning.

Avoid flavor-of-the-week. Staffs rarely trust managers when they feel whipsawed by changes in priorities. This month we want to tweet more; this month we’re all about video; this month is “let’s plan an event.” Yes, with so much uncertainty and real pressure to increase revenue, trying new ideas is part of every newsroom’s reality. And when something clearly is not working, it makes sense to stop doing it. But staff counts on its managers to have a longer view than next month. Once you’ve set a course, assigned roles, provided training and set sail, give the plan time to succeed. And remember, no one has found a silver bullet. Success in this environment will almost certainly require consistent execution of a number of tactics, evolving over time with the public we serve.

Provide a balanced diet of feedback. Occasionally I hear a journalist say they don’t trust the boss’ feedback because it’s always positive. (I must admit I’ve never heard a journalist say he didn’t trust the feedback because it’s always negative, but our obsession with our shortcomings is another issue.)

Regardless of why a boss would only give positive feedback, that practice almost certainly paints an unrealistic picture of a staffer’s work. Even a staffer who never produces “bad” work is capable of improving, and good feedback can help her do that. Perhaps the easiest way to ensure a balanced diet of feedback is to offer it frequently; that approach is most likely to capture work that is very good and work that suggests ways to improve.

Say what you mean, clearly. Some managers have great difficulty being clear. Some struggle with delivering bad news; others find it difficult to clearly describe strategy, a new assignment, a story idea. These managers often leave staff asking each other “what did he just say?”

Sometimes the failure to be clear stems from a fear that the staffer will react badly to the news. Sometimes it’s the result of poor preparation or a failure to think through an idea before trying to describe it. In any case, remember how crucial the quality of our communication is to the development of trust. And our delivery can contribute as much to our communication’s effectiveness as the message itself.

Here’s my advice. Keep it simple. Whether you’re delivering good or bad news, or describing newsroom strategy or pitching an idea, remember the one question your audience has for you: What does this mean for me?

Clearly explain how the strategy will affect your staffer’s work. Clearly explain why you liked that lead. Clearly explain how you would like the photographer and reporter to work more collaboratively. You want your staffer to leave the conversation with a clear understanding of what he or she should do. Trust is enhanced when your staffer believes you have provided a clear roadmap, hopefully to success.

These ideas, no matter what your job in the newsroom, can help you build trust. My final suggestion is that you help each other. Let each other know what you each can do to be trustworthy. Building a trust-filled newsroom is everyone’s opportunity—I dare say, responsibility. We’ll do better work for it.

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

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