Purpose and Trust; Why we need to listen. Why we need to act.

Today’s business environment is being profoundly disrupted. Volatile markets, rapid technological advances and unexpected sources of competition are ingredients in a boiling, roiling stew of threats and opportunities, and leaders the world over are struggling to navigate this shifting landscape. Transformation is not enough. Transcendence is the new game.

You can question does purpose and trust matter?

To answer that question in brief; it only matters if it is implemented in conjunction with clear, concise direction from top management and in such a way that the middle layer within the company is fully engaged within. Even after the company is fully aligned behind a compelling purpose, leaders must continue to reinforce it from the top. You can’t just adopt it. It has to be driven, operationally and in-depth, by the CEO and the top leadership team.

A discussion and running theme that seems to be on every leadership and executive director’s mind, is ‘what is required to be an effective leader in today’s totally disruptive business world’?

Businesses of all sizes in all regions of the world are responding to a vision and set of common values across purpose and trust. Companies have reported purpose and regaining trust as a new guiding star for a world in constant change, in an interconnected operating environment that businesses face.

To distil purpose more equally throughout the companies, many firms are considering hiring chief purpose officers. Shannon Schuyler, newly hired first chief purpose officer at PwC, defines the role as, “how you connect purpose to an individual so they know what they need to do in their roles and how do you help them see personally how they connect with values and behaviours.”

The timing could not be more urgent. The world is facing a complicated web of multidimensional interconnected systemic challenges continue to rise.

When you ask employees, what matters most to them, feeling respected by superiors often tops the list. “In a recent survey by Georgetown University’s Christine Porath of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, respondents ranked respect as the most important leadership behaviour. Yet employees report more disrespectful and uncivil behaviour each year.

The challenge is finding the right balance between the two types of respects. Owed respect without earned respect can deflate employees, who will sense that their efforts won’t be recognized or rewarded, while a focus on teamwork may, however, warrant more owed respect as a bonding tool.

A survey carried out by DataPad for International Business and Executive Management as part of some research for one of my published books, Purposeful Discussions, shows that few of us trust our leaders.

Of those who responded to the question; “Do you trust and respect your CEO”, 30% responded, “not at all” and another 39% responded, “a little”.

The survey asked employees the same question on ‘trust and respect’ in relation to their Executive Leadership, Heads of Department and their immediate line managers. The closer the manager’s role was to the respondent, the more likely it was for the employee to answer positively.

Immediate managers were trusted “a lot” by 48% of those who responded and “a little” by 36%. 16% of immediate managers are not trusted at all.

We all live and work in an era of increasing connectivity and public scrutiny: a world where societies are being reshaped and businesses disrupted by powerful global trends.

The changes driven by these trends – both alone and acting together – bring major implications for trust.

PwC in their 23rd global CEO survey showed that CEOs are putting significant emphasis on their broader purpose and culture, as issues such as sustainability, diversity and wellbeing have become business-critical.

With skills a priority, it is essential CEOs promote a company culture that complements their recruitment and retention plans by helping them attract, retain and nurture the people they have and the talent they need.

UK CEOs show a commitment to issues such as diversity and inclusion and recognising the importance of wellbeing in the workplace. Addressing such issues not only demonstrates a commitment to workplace equality, but also reflects a growing recognition that greater diversity can improve decision-making.

However, it is surprising given the attention this matter has been getting that a significant proportion of businesses are yet to really focus on this issue.

To succeed in this fast-changing environment, businesses need to have a clear purpose that enables people to understand why a business does what it does. This purpose needs to look beyond the generation of financial returns to encapsulate how the business serves society.

Articulating – and embracing – such a purpose has never been more important. Why? Because today, in the wake of events that shook people’s trust in organisations of all types, attitudes and expectations of business are undergoing fundamental shifts. Having a shared recognition and understanding of why a business exists is key to bridging the trust deficit and shaping a new relationship between business and wider society.

When trust disappears, many things can change. Businesses can go on the defensive, and stop communicating, collaborating and innovating. And that’s just the start. Customer loyalty may diminish; it may get harder to attract, retain and motivate talented staff; regulation may increase, adding cost and effort for everyone; and businesses may lose their license to be listened to.

Together, all these factors can dampen growth, creating quantifiable impacts on share price, cost of capital and liquidity. The effects on morale innovation and behaviour are harder to measure but potentially even more damaging in the long-term.

Jason Lanier is one of the most celebrated pioneers of digital innovation in the world, and also one of the earliest and most prescient critics of its current trajectory. Jason is author of 2018’s ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’, which is as clear and definitive an account of the damage companies like Twitter and Facebook and Google do to society and to our individual psyches as you’ll ever read.

The book felt relevant again right now, I said, in a way that made my bones actually vibrate. Lanier had been early to the idea that these platforms were addictive and even harmful—that their algorithms made people feel bad, divided them against one another, and actually changed who they were, in an insidious and threatening manner. That because of this, social media was in some ways “worse than cigarettes,” as Lanier put it at one point, “in that cigarettes don’t degrade you. They kill you, but you’re still you.”

His most dispiriting observations are those about what social media does to politics – biased, “not towards the left or right, but downwards”. If triggering emotions is the highest prize, and negative emotions are easier to trigger, how could social media not make you sad?

If your consumption of content is tailored by near limitless observations harvested about people like you, how could your universe not collapse into the partial depiction of reality that people like you also enjoy? How could empathy and respect for difference thrive in this environment? Where’s the incentive to stamp out fake accounts, fake news, paid troll armies, dyspeptic bots?

Right now, Lanier said, most of the systems on the internet are set up to exploit us, to harvest our creative ideas and our data without compensation. That the prevailing attitude in Silicon Valley is basically: “There’s no reason for you to know what your data means, how it might be used, you can’t contribute, we don’t know who you are, we don’t want to know you, you’re worthless, you’re not going to get paid, it’s only valuable once we aggregate it but you know nothing, you will know nothing, you’re in the dark, you’re useless, you’re hopeless, you’re nothing.

Leaders today are constantly in the spotlight and are often called upon to earn authority without control. Economic and social change demands leadership by consent rather than by control. What we perceive as good leadership tends to be created by leaders, followers, and the context and purpose of the organisation, thus it is a collective rather than individual responsibility.

Trust is a key ingredient of successful leadership. Trusted leaders are the guardians of the values of the organisation. Trust can release the energy of people and enlarge the human and intellectual capital of employees. In a trusting environment when we are committed to our shared purpose we play active roles both as leaders and as followers.

We talk a lot about trust these days because it tends to be a precious and scarce resource.

You could question the word empathetic leadership. Leaders with empathetic leadership listen attentively to what you’re telling them, putting their complete focus on the person in front of them and not getting easily distracted. They spend more time listening than talking because they want to understand the difficulties others face, all of which helps to give those around them the feeling of being heard and recognized.

Empathetic executives and managers realize that the bottom line of any business is only reached through and with people. Therefore, they have an attitude of openness towards and understanding of the feelings and emotions of their team members.

When we listen to the emerging needs of the workplace we step into the most relevant and useful roles and make relevant and valuable contributions both when leading and when following. Members of organisations who are sensitive to people’s reactions trust themselves and each other. They build and nurture trusting relationships and allow the future to emerge organically.

No heroic leader can resolve the complex challenges we face today. To address the important issues of our time we need a fundamental change of perspective. We need to start questioning many of our taken for granted assumptions about our business and social environments.

Leaders serve as role models for their followers and demonstrate the behavioural boundaries set within an organisation. The appropriate and desired behaviour is enhanced through culture and socialisation process of the newcomers. Employees learn about values from watching leaders in action. The more the leader “walks the talk”, by translating internalized values into action, the higher level of trust and respect he generates from followers.

Final thought, to help bridge the trust gap we recognise that organisations need to work with each other and with wider society to identify practicable, actionable steps that businesses can take to shape a new relationship with wider society: a new ‘settlement’ based on mutual understanding and a shared recognition of the positive role that business plays in people’s lives.

To create such a settlement, businesses need to see themselves as part of a diverse, interconnected and interdependent ecosystem – one that involves government, regulators, individual citizens and more. Trust within and across this ecosystem is key to its long-term sustainability and survival. That’s why trust needs to be restored to the heart of the business world.

As Stephen M.R. Covey once said:

“Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, illusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather, trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create.”

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