In today’s federal environment, resources are constrained but the demand for services is higher than ever. Tom Fox spoke with best-selling author Stephen M. R. Covey about how federal managers can build a culture of trust in their agencies to help produce better results with tighter budgets. In Covey’s book, “The Speed of Trust,” he challenges the assumption that trust is merely a soft, social virtue and argues that it is a learnable, measurable skill that makes organizations more profitable, people more promotable and relationships more energizing.

Covey is the son of Stephen R. Covey, well-known leadership author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and served as CEO of the Covey Leadership Center. He spoke with Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What are the most important components to developing trust?

Photo Credit: FranklinCovey Photo Credit: FranklinCovey

A. Credibility and behavior. Credibility flows from having both character and competence. Our character is who we are; our competence is what we can do. If we're strong in one area and weak in the other, we won't sustain trust in the long run. I might trust an individual with high character but low competence if I went on vacation and needed someone to watch my home, because they're honest. But I may not trust them on a key project if they don't have a track record of performing. The reverse is true as well. Someone could be high in competence but low in character. They might get things done, but in doing so they might also violate the beliefs and values of the agency. That lack of character will undermine trust and credibility.

Behavior is what we do and how we do it. My father, Dr. Stephen R. Covey, had an expression, "You can't talk yourself out of a problem that you behaved yourself into."  The only way out is to behave your way out. Too often, people focus only on delivering results, but how we get there will determine whether we sustain trust. Also, if you want to be trusted, you’ll need to extend trust, because trust is reciprocal. One reason why, in many agencies and organizations today, employees don't trust their management is simply because the management doesn't trust the employees, and the employees reciprocate that distrust. Leaders ought to take the first step to extend trust to their employees.

Tell me more about what drives credibility.

There are four cores of credibility. The first is integrity. Integrity means honesty and that there is very little gap between what we say and what we do. I liken it to the roots of a tree. The second is intent, and intent refers to your motive or agenda. The agenda that best builds credibility and trust is one of mutual benefit, where I want your win as much as I want my own. Intent is the trunk of the tree. The third core, your capabilities, is like the branches of the tree. By capabilities, I mean learning, growing, improving and staying relevant. The fourth core of credibility, the fruits of the tree, is the results or your performance.

This framework can also help pinpoint the issues that may be eroding trust in your organization. There may be a lack of trust because someone has a self-serving agenda, which is different than a lack of trust because of poor integrity or incompetence.

What can federal managers do to build trust?

There are three steps federal managers can take to establish trust. The first is to declare your intent. Let people know you’d like to create trust and why. The second step is to signal your behavior. If you’re on the freeway and you’re going to change lanes, you turn on your blinker. You’re not doing that for yourself, since you already know what you’re planning to do, you’re doing it for others. So tell people that you’re going to try to build trust and then make them aware of the specific things you’re going to do. The third step is the most important: Simply do what you said you were going to do. By doing the first two steps in advance of the third, you’ll build trust faster, because people are looking for your behavior and they’ll credit you when they see it.

How can federal leaders regain the trust of the American people in light of recent scandals?

I believe what profit is to the private sector, trust is to the public sector. It’s our key measure. We really need to behave our way back into trust. It goes back to those three steps of declaring our intent, signaling our behavior, and then doing what we say we’re going to do.  It takes time and it’s never easy to restore trust, but if we ultimately sustain that behavior consistently, in most situations, we can behave our way back into trust.

What are some consequences of low trust, and high trust?

In low-trust environments, you'll see low morale, disengagement and a lack of commitment. You'll also see people manipulating, distorting facts and withholding information. There will be resistance to new ideas, bad-mouthing, finger-pointing, overpromising, underdelivering and, often, tension and fear. Everything will take longer to do and everything will cost more.

The converse in high-trust cultures is equally true. When the trust goes up in an organization, the speed will go up and costs will come down. Your ability to collaborate goes up, as does your ability to attract, retain and engage people. When trust goes up, you’ll see people sharing information, not afraid to make mistakes, more creativity, higher accountability and greater energy and satisfaction. When you move the needle on trust, you move all kinds of other needles with it.

Read also:

How to develop your presence as a leader

Decision making in the federal government

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Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.