Rebuilding trust trumps everything

Ben Houghton on what to do when it’s far too late to make a great first impression as a leader

Photo credit: PA

We all know that first impressions matter, and that it only takes a few seconds to make a snap judgement about someone.

If, like me, you are surprised by Trump’s victory, you may also have the impression of him as being bombastic, grandiose and arrogant. This opinion has been formed over the preceding months of campaigning, and which, at least I hope, might not be reflective of who he really is. What I am left wondering is whether he is at all concerned by these kind of perceptions, and what it must be like to start the biggest job of your life and know that nearly half the people you will lead see you so unfavourably.

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Given that to succeed in business or politics a leader needs to be trusted – what can one of the most unlikeable candidates in the history of the United States Presidential races do to foster an improvement in people’s perception of him? Likewise, what would you do to change people’s perceptions on appointment, following a 15-month long interview process?

The importance of trust and its inherent fragility

Donald Trump has never been a well-liked character, but neither was his opponent. Despite being described as the most popular politician in the US,1 the campaign saw the people of America turn against Hillary Clinton and opt for Donald Trump. The problem for Hillary was that when she talked people stopped believing what she was saying. How did this happen?

Trust is built on an unstable platform that juxtaposes what we expect or desire from someone with our concerns or fears that they will not live up to what we hope.

It can take years to build trust, and some say that it can be destroyed in an instant. For over half of the American population, this was certainly the case. What people hoped for from Hillary was irreparably damaged by the FBI’s announcement to reopen their investigations into her email habits.

Trust lost Hillary the election as her candidacy became undermined by a negative emotional response composed of anger and disappointment in her. The unstable platform tipped over and the hope people had in her was lost.

Trump certainly benefited from this and may even have caused some of it.

The challenge of changing people’s perceptions

Similarly, trust in Trump is not a given. Like Hillary, he also has to rebuild from the ground up.

Trust is both a cognitive process as well as an emotional one. The cognitive side of it can be helped along by some kind of restitution, or act that shows that he is trying to redeem himself. Whereas the emotional side is a little more intangible.

There is an apt maxim for this from François de La Rochefoucauld from the 18th century, ‘as human beings, we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviours’.

If your intention is to restore trust quickly, at the very least you need to focus your efforts on behaviours that directly impact how the people you lead feel.

We all want to feel valued, self determined and trusted.

The everyday behaviours that will deliver this for you involve being attentive, balanced and connected – it’s as simple as ABC.

Being ‘attentive’ is literally about being ‘present’ to what is going on with others. It’s about eye contact, listening and acknowledgment. If you want people to trust you, they have to feel valued in your presence, or in other words, worthy of your attention.

Being ‘balanced’ is the ability to structure your communication in a logical way and be clear about your intentions. If you want people to trust you, people have to get a sense that you are coming from a positive place. Whatever you communicate needs to make sense to others and be cognisant of how they will be affected.

Being ‘connected’ refers to being open about what you feel and showing that you want to deepen your relationships with others. If you want people to trust you, people have to like you, as well as like themselves in your presence.

No one can go into an interaction and make someone trust them. It doesn’t work. What you can do is focus your behaviour in ways that touch what is most important to others and leave them with positive perceptions about you.

For President-elect Trump, changing people’s perceptions will involve greater ‘balance’ in his way of communicating by providing more detail to back up his campaign rhetoric, which is as unfamiliar to him as being open to the press is for Hillary Clinton.

He will need to delve into the specifics of ‘what’ he will do and ‘how’ he will achieve it so that people can start to appreciate the structure and details of his plans. What is important is that people start to identify with him as a competent, articulate and composed operator who can deliver on what he has promised. He will also need to take greater care in managing people’s expectations of him through being more predictable, which will in turn help restore people’s hopes and override their fears. 

Three things to shift perceptions

Here are three things that anyone can try to shift the perceptions of others:

  • Be ‘attentive’ by maintaining eye contact, listening, showing concern and acting in a way that respects others. Include others by inviting them to join in.
  • Be ‘balanced’ by emphasising common ground, sharing control and performing your duties competently and consistently. Give others the chance to demonstrate that they are capable too.
  • Be ‘connected’ by communicating openly and transparently. Promote your values so that others can identify with who you are.




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