Leading from the front in the age of mistrust

Today’s leaders are faced with the challenge of meeting new team and employee expectations

Not only are they expected to successfully run their businesses and lead their teams, but employees are also turning to them to address broader societal issues, according to Edelman 2020’s Trust Barometer. The annual report highlighted that more than four in five people believe CEOs should drive change, instead of waiting for the government to impose it – a significant 19-point jump compared to last year.

This year, nearly two thirds (62%) of employees are now looking to their CEO for leadership during more challenging times. With 2021 right around the corner – and many struggling to predict what the next year might throw at us – I believe that the companies we are likely to trust most will be those that don’t just talk about change, but actively participate in driving it forward.

As new generations enter the workforce, Millennials and Gen Z employees – who make up nearly half of the total working population – are also looking beyond salary to understand the core values of the companies they join and the people who lead them. They are asking themselves how those values align with what’s most important to them. In fact, one LinkedIn Workplace Culture report states nearly 9 in 10 (86%) Millennials would consider taking a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with their own.

As the lines between work and home life blur, people want to be able to bring more of their full selves to work – and to have a voice. And so they should. Trust is built on transparency and communication. Employees need to fully understand the direction of travel for their company, be able to share frustrations, ideas and best practice, and feel able to approach leadership teams openly in the spirit of collaboration.

So what can business leaders do in practice to help employees feel heard and build a culture of trust as we move into the new year?

Bring company values to life

We’ve already seen some employees, including those at Nike and McDonald’s, speaking up loudly when companies fall short of expected standards. At every level, leaders should ensure teams fully understand the company’s core values. It is a leader’s responsibility to make sure that those values are also communicated clearly. By doing this, both the leader and individual teams can hold themselves to account – and this makes it possible to quickly spot any gaps. Your values should be more than just the words on a page – everyone needs to genuinely believe and embody the behaviours that led them to join the company in the first place.

Stay humble

The best leaders listen more than they talk and give others a voice. No one has all the answers and you never know where a good idea will come from. By creating open channels of communication – a Q+A portion at the end of an all-hands meeting or regular open door sessions, for example – your team will feel encouraged to speak up and know they are being heard. I try not to place too many limits on the information given to my team (where possible). It helps build a culture of openness, so that everyone understands what’s happening in the business and what that means for them and their role. At Zendesk, we want a democracy, not a dictatorship, and we facilitate this with a flat structure that avoids too many layers of management.

Be transparent – where possible

I’ve noticed that those entering the workforce in recent years have been keener than ever to understand what’s happening right across the business they work for, not just within their department. They also want to know that their work is having an impact, both internally and externally, in the context of the market and its competitors. To accommodate that, transparency should be front and centre. My experience has taught me that it’s important to make clear what employee responsibilities are, both individually and collectively, as part of the company. A lot of historical leadership fundamentals are being challenged in today’s workforce, and it’s important to bring everyone with you on that journey as you identify what that means for your business today. None of us are perfect, but today’s leaders are expected to be vulnerable and transparent in a way that wasn’t always the case in previous generations.

Embrace flexible working

There was a time when if you weren’t in the office Monday – Friday, especially in a sales environment, then people would lose confidence in you. If team leaders weren’t seeing you, they began to worry that things weren’t being done in the right way. Current circumstances have forced us to reconsider this way of working. For example, in the past, we might have been far too focused on the input. By input, I mean that more prescriptive style of management, detailing how we expect every detail to be done and the hours spent on tasks. I’ve found that the main problem with this is it leaves employees with little room for their own creativity and decision-making.

There is value in giving team members the space to own their own work. This output-driven management style has been proven to empower employees to be more productive. When Microsoft Japan trialled a 4-day week last year, they found it led to more efficient meetings, less time off, happier workers and a 40% boost to productivity. Giving employees the flexibility to work when they will be most productive, as opposed to sticking to a rigid 9-5 timetable, will reap rewards – and boost company loyalty.

In the current climate of significant economic, political and environmental uncertainty, leadership has never been more challenging. As we face a different set of rules for the world at work, our people remain one of our most important assets – so it’s important leaders take the time to adapt, with trust and transparency at the forefront.

About the Author

Andrew Lawson is SVP EMEA at Zendesk. Zendesk is a service-first CRM company that builds support, sales, and customer engagement software designed to foster better customer relationships. From large enterprises to start-ups, we believe that powerful, innovative customer experience should be within reach for every company, no matter the size, industry or ambition.