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Trust and authentic leadership, it’s the only business show in town.

Andrew O'ShaughnessyAndrew O'Shaughnessy·
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Four years ago, academics Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones published the results of lengthy research into the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they found that ‘people will not follow a leader they feel is inauthentic”. But, additionally, the executives they interviewed were at pains to stress that for them to be authentic they needed to work for an authentic organization.

What did an authentic organization look like? Goffe and Jones boiled it down to six common imperatives, which they labelled “the organization of your dreams”.
“In a nutshell, it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; there are no stupid rules”.

All very worthy, of course, and as the authors point out, few, if any organizations tick all those noble boxes. But it would be a mistake to not recognize and take on board a fundamental truth which shouts out from these findings and others that business need to act on or else fail: just as in a personal relationship employees want, and are increasingly demanding, the authentic not the fake, they want transparency and honesty, not opacity and spin, and they want to be treated as adults with dignity and fairness.

All of which has ‘trust’ at its core, but as the 2017 Edelman global survey pointed out, there has been “an implosion of trust” in global institutions across politics, business, media, government and non-governmental organizations and “a system’ that is seen to favor the rich and powerful elite at the expense of the masses.

There is a stark warning here for business leaders, where trust has plummeted. Over the past year the credibility of CEOs fell to an alarmingly low 37%. Just as in so many other areas of society and public life, the traditional pyramid of influence and authority in business has been toppled. People are far more likely to believe what company employees say (and they are saying more, and saying it more publicly than ever before, because they can) than what they hear from company leaders.
As Richard Edelman stated: “the primary axis of communications is now horizontal or peer-to-peer, evidence of dispersion of authority to friends and family”.

This has revolutionary implications for the relationship between management and employees which, as Bloomberg’s Ethan McCarty recently pointed out, have been irrevocably changed by the internet. “While employees used to be thought of as an audience to receive messages, we now look at them as the messengers themselves. Together with the brand behind them, they are a powerful network, a potent combination of brand authority and personal authenticity,” he said, and he was so right.

Companies that don’t get the seismic shift in the employer, employee and indeed customer relationship, that don’t realise the imperative of leading by example and fostering a culture of authenticity, trust and transparency in their organizations, are on an inevitable slide to failure.

Organizations that try to pretend to be something they are not – whether it’s an exemplar of fairness and diversity or a place of innovation and opportunity – simply won’t get away with it anymore. Armed with their digital device of choice, current or former employees can quickly see to that on Glassdoor. If the French revolutionaries of 1789 were around today they would find the smartphone more effective than the guillotine, if somewhat less dramatic! Doubters should remember that it was a blog from a former employee, laying bare Uber’s culture, that became the tipping point to the exit of CEO Travis Kalanick.

The more progressive organizations, the ones that are and will be successful are those who are focused and thriving on changes forged by the digital revolution, and are creating workplaces where honesty, trust, openness and authenticity are at the heart of the cultural fabric. I am very happy to say that these are values we hold very dear at Poppulo and live them every day. We don’t get it right all the time, of course, but we give it our best shot. And when we get it wrong we try to learn from it and do better next time.

But to get it right you’ve got to make sure you hear; you’ve got to listen. I have long held the belief that the ability to listen carefully is perhaps the single most important element of any communication or dialogue. Nowadays in business that’s more the case than ever before, with the total subversion of the historical top-down approach to employee communications.

As Ben Boyd, Edelman’s President and CEO, Canada and Latin America, observed earlier this year: “No single action is more interconnected with building trust than ‘treating employees well’. And yet what that action entails today is far more complex than good pay and benefits.
“It goes beyond surveying employees about engagement. Rather, the best companies are deeply listening and strategically integrating those insights to help shape the future of their business,” he said.

The best companies are also applying the same degree of deep listening to the requirements and demands they face as they compete to attract highly skilled and discerning employees when the demand for talent far outstrips supply globally.

Within three years one in three US adults will be a millennial and by 2025 they will make up 75% of the American workforce. Figures for Europe lag behind, but not to a significant degree.

While much has been written about millennials it’s not difficult to find contradictions about what they stand for, their attitude to work, their lifestyle. It can even be debated if indeed they really are any different in their values to previous generations.

Just like those who have gone before them, they value honesty, authenticity, openness, trust and a sense of purpose in their personal lives. But unlike other generations they expect the same from the organizations they choose to work for.

And because they are the most connected generation ever, they don’t turn to the ‘values’ dropdown of a company’s website or its PR to find out what it’s really like when they’re considering a job. Instead, they scroll the trusted social feeds of that inverted pyramid of influence, the organization’s current and former employees.

The days of a company saying one thing while being another are well and truly over.
The genie is out of the cyber bottle and it’s not going back in.
It’s a liberation for companies who value honesty and openness – and for those who don’t, for those who still think only they control the script, it’s going to be a rocky, leaky, increasingly talentless ride.


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