Man walks into a column, no.40: Trust

Interesting survey findings released last week by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) suggest that whilst in general employees trust their CEOs ‘more now than at any time over the last three years’ chief execs in the public sector are the least trusted of all. What lies behind this, I wonder?

It’s obviously not an easy time to be in charge of a public sector body, especially a large one. But with the trust differential between the public and private sectors growing it seems that, as the ILM puts it, ‘public sector employees doubt the ability of their CEOs to get the job done given the pressures facing the public sector at the moment’. (You can download the PDF of the full report here.)

It doesn’t seem to be the size of an organisation that explains the gap: national and local government, health and education organisations with over one thousand staff have the three lowest scores in the survey, lower than the private and third sector averages for companies/charities of the same size. And as we all know, conditions in the third sector in particular are just as tough, if not tougher.

What can public sector leaders learn from their counterparts in other sectors? The Institute’s analysis offers a few clues. ‘Leaders in the largest organisations, where staying visible is toughest, must work hardest to build and maintain trust’, we’re told. And: ‘the more distant an employee feels from their boss, the less likely they are to trust them’. In the private sector, bosses are increasing their visibility:

In the wake of the economic downturn, CEOs are taking a more hands-on approach. Rising to the challenge, they are visibly leading their organisations through a period of substantial change and upheaval. Significant increases in CEO ratings on openness and understanding show that employees feel closer to their CEOs than before.

I would think it uncontroversial to say that ‘staying visible’ is more challenging, but correspondingly even more important in public sector organisations, where a naturally more bureaucratic and hierarchical culture places greater barriers between frontline staff/middle management and the top. And of course perhaps you don’t want to be particularly visible as a public sector chief exec if, amidst the shifting sands of a tumultuous policy and economic landscape, you find it hard and/or risky to credibly pin your colours to the mast.

I would guess, though, that it isn’t a choice between ‘visibility plus certainty’ and ‘absence in light of uncertainty’. Staff understand fully that these are difficult times and that firm promises are hard to make. They’re not looking to chief execs for something they can’t be expected to provide. But surely it’s exactly in very uncertain times that the reassuring presence of an organisation’s leader is most crucial.

This kind of ‘reassurance without promises’ requires really courageous leadership, and it’s hard to escape the fact that – as the ILM research indeed suggests – one of the main explanations for lower levels of trust is that the average quality of public sector bosses is lagging (as with any generalisation there are many exceptional exceptions).

In the absence of a solution for this major development challenge, I leave you with this from today’s FT, which suggests that the key to ‘enhancing your personal brand’ and ‘building rapport’ with your colleagues is to be more open about your extracurricular activities. Forget stamp collecting or crosswords, though: the hobbies en vogue at the moment are, apparently, bee-keeping, stand-up comedy, farming and… collecting death masks. On second thoughts…

2 thoughts on “Man walks into a column, no.40: Trust”

  1. Really well expressed.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this – I have just been opining something similar – that engagement is critical. If it happens through stories and humour, it is all the more powerful.
    Kind regards,

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