Stephen M.R. Covey has sold 600,000 copies of The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, a book that has been endorsed by a who’s who of CEOs and management authorities. Covey, chief executive of CoveyLink and the former CEO of Covey Leadership Centre and FranklinCovey, spoke with editor-in-chief Paul Crookall on trust in public service.
There are many trust deficits in our work: between politicians and citizens; managers and staff; ministers and departments; one agency and another. How does your research on trust apply?
Public service is built on relationships, and they thrive or die on trust. The context changes, between public and private sector, from one nation to another, but the principles remain the same – even more so in public service where there is a duty to society. As British Prime Minister Disraeli put it, “All power is a trust, we are accountable for its exercise, from the people and for the people, all springs, and all must exist.”
What’s your advice to a manager moving into a low trust situation?
In most cases, you can build trust faster than you thought possible, provided you pay deliberate attention to it. When you go into the situation, don’t ignore, or worse, deny, there is a trust problem. If it is yours, own it. If you have inherited it, acknowledge the issue and declare your intent to create trust – make it an explicit objective. That public declaration makes it easier for people to recognize trustworthy actions and accelerates the process. But if, having said it, you then don’t follow through, you magnify the problem.
We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour. This is why one of the fastest ways to restore trust is to make and keep commitments. It’s not easy, but it is relatively simple. Be purpose-driven, use a deliberative process, and follow through with action and results.
In the U.S., political appointees replace the top levels of public servants after a change in government. In Canada, the professional, non-partisan public service goes all the way to the deputy minister. One side effect can be that a new government’s ministers and staff do not trust “the bureaucracy” appointed by their predecessors. And “the bureaucracy” doesn’t trust the government’s agenda. How can we build trust in those cases?
The fear is of different agendas and motives – what is the other person’s “intent.” I’d suggest you approach the situation from the perspective of focusing on the objectives and the job to be done, and focusing on achieving results in a way that grows trust. Politicians have a responsibility not just to govern, but to also build trust, which in turn builds their capacity to govern and to serve.
I’d be direct, as minister or deputy minister, and say that it is important to build trust in our relationship so that we can: accomplish more; enjoy work more; and be most cost-effective. I would commit to behaving in ways that build trust – practicing the 13 behaviours. I’d lead out, by behaving in a trustworthy way, and by extending trust to the other. There is, clearly, some risk in doing this, and some reluctance, often by the politician. But the potential is great.
Leaders need to realize that trust and distrust are often reciprocated. If the politician distrusts the public service executive, the executive will distrust the politician, and vice-versa. There is a fear of being burned. I am not advocating blind trust. But we cannot allow the few who would abuse trust to set the tone. Let the many who will be inspired set the tone. As a leader, say: “I will lead out; it starts with me first.”
Performance management is a big issue. One behaviour you recommend is “hold others accountable…good performers want others to be held accountable. They thrive where they can trust that slackers and poor performers won’t just slip by.” Recently, a committee chaired by two prominent Canadians, Paul Tellier and Don Mazankowski, advised the Prime Minister that the public service should focus on performance management. In some public service organizations, managers are reluctant to focus on poor performers, and staff are reluctant to draw attention to fellow workers who are not producing or who are violating laws and regulations. How do you build a culture where “don’t rat” and “ignore the elephant in the room” is replaced by something healthier?
That shift doesn’t happen over night. You have to move to where the culture becomes the enforcer. Rules provide some control, but at a greater cost than building trust. Building trust takes time and effort, to build a critical mass of employees who like being trusted and don’t want to lose that, so they report abuses by their colleagues.
Government tends to be at one end of the spectrum, with the “web of rules.”
And at the other end is Nordstrom, whose employee handbook says simply: “Use good judgment in all situations.” That’s a pretty extraordinary rule. They didn’t start with it, out of the blue, because people weren’t ready for it. They recruited, trained, coached, mentored, to build to the point where, if someone got out of line, it wasn’t out of place for others to say, “hey, that’s not how we do things around here.” In most cultures, that rule would be out of place and abused, and that practice would be seen as “ratting.”
To get there, you need to build trust, clarify expectations, practice accountability. With rules, you get minimum effort. But if you get enough of the many to help weed out the few, it works. They hold themselves, and others, accountable – more than that, they become “stewards” with a sense of ownership. Once the many have made the shift, it creates its own momentum, and is seen as helping reinforce what is valued, rather than as ratting. If not, then the few dominate the culture.
The problem is that many “ethics” solutions focus on compliance – follow the rules. As a result there are complex policy manuals. People can be duplicitous or even brutal in how they treat others, but unless they’re caught fudging an expense account or violating some other measurable rule, most companies typically won’t do anything about it. “Rules cannot take the place of character,” Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve has noted.
It’s difficult to change large organizations as a whole, so focus on the work units, build islands of high trust, and then build enough of them to transform the organization.
“Speaking truth to power” is a Canadian expression that combines two behaviours you recommend: “talk straight” and “right wrongs.” I heard of a manager who said, “If you admit to a mistake, you’ve just made a second one.” How can we both admit to mistakes, and advise superiors when we think they should rethink what they are doing?
If you make a mistake, there are costs. But if you hide it, the costs, when it surfaces, are greater. In the long run, admitting and correcting is more sustainable. And you build credibility. Think of the cost of mistakes and breaches of trust as a “tax.” If you delay that tax, disguise or deny the problem, you pay more later. You get taxed for the wrong and then for the cover up.
Admitting mistakes is not common practice, but it is common sense. You need to build your credibility, build the four core competencies of integrity, intent, capabilities and results. Admitting a mistake, apologizing, and righting the wrong may seem like a weakness to some, but it is actually a great strengt