Telling the Truth and Building Trust

‘A Saskatchewan Case Study in the Making’

Saskatchewan is a tough little prairie province with a population of about one person a square mile. Folks like their coffee hot and their beer cold. It’s a good place to learn the importance of telling the truth and building trust.

The province is my home and, until I retired, I was a senior executive with PotashCorp, one of the province’s most profitable and prized resource companies.

In the fall of 2010, PotashCorp was the target of a hostile takeover bid from Australia’s BHP. Securing public approval was critical to the BHP offer and just as critical to PotashCorp’s resistance. Lots of promises were made.

Who were the good people of Saskatchewan going to believe? Who could they trust to steer the future of the world’s largest store of their beloved potash?

Whether you are a business manager, a sports coach or a parent (and no matter where you live), there are lessons in leadership from what unfolded in Saskatchewan.

Me Thinks Thou Does Attest Too Much

Robert Feldman, a University of Massachusetts psychologist, says that children lie to avoid punishment and adults to improve their image. The more concerned they are with how others see them, the more deceptive they become. That’s ironic, because the more they attest to their own good intentions, the more we actually begin to see them as untrustworthy.

The need for a positive public image may be the reason we hear so many untruths from people in power. When something untrue is uncovered, a bond is broken. That trust can be difficult, even impossible to restore.

An article published by the Harvard Business Review called “The Decision to Trust,” said people working in places with low levels of trust described a stressful, threatening, divisive, unproductive, and tense environment. Those who worked in places with high levels of trust thought of their work as fun, supportive, motivating, and productive.

At home, at the office or on the playing field, leaders who reduce the lies and increase the trust will have better relationships and get superior results.

The Trust Thrust Factor

Mike Babcock, the coach of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, is one of the hockey’s greatest coaches. It has been my privilege to know Mike since he was fifteen and, in fact, we are related by marriage. He’s the only hockey coach with ‘triple gold’ status – having won the Stanley Cup, Olympic Gold and a World Championship.

It was Mike who told me once that, in hockey, trust equals speed.

Later, I picked up Stephen Covey’s bestselling book “The Speed of Trust,” which says trust equals speed in business.

So trust equals speed in both sport and business. Hmm. Interesting.

When you think about it, that equation applies to every dimension of life. As Covey says, “If you want a dramatic example of how lack of trust slows you down, just think how long it takes to board an airplane since 9-11.” The state of readiness, which comes from trust, is an advantage in any competitive environment, like either sports or business.

When Mike talks about coaching, he reinforces the idea of treating players like customers. A coach is there to serve the players, creating a climate where players believe in themselves, believe in their teammates, and believe in their coach. That only happens in an environment of trust, he says.

How Big Was That Fish Again?

You’ve probably heard someone say “the customer comes first” when in reality they really mean, “I come first.” I once saw a colleague stretch the truth to win money from a client at a company-sponsored fishing derby. He cared about the customer when it was to his benefit (such as expensing tickets for the two of them to attend a popular concert) but ignored the client when it suited him.

If we couldn’t believe his ‘fish tales,’ what would he do when it really mattered? I learned not to trust him and so did the client.

Good leaders recognize that it is more important to build trust than to build their self-esteem by telling a lie or stretching the truth. They want a winning team.

Here are four ideas for making others feel secure with you:

Keep Commitments
Start with baby steps; make small commitments and keep them. Your actions have to reinforce your words. When doing investor relations at PotashCorp, I remember a portfolio manager telling me, “You have to tell people what you’re going to do, and then do it. If you don’t do it, you have to tell them why.” And this goes for all stakeholders – not just investors.

Be Transparent

If you didn’t keep your agreements or live up to expectations, you must explain why. An open agenda will reassure folks that you want to work together – and that you can be trusted. Keeping secrets, telling half-truths, or being selective with information that you share will destroy that covenant. Remember that there is not only the “letter of the law” but also the “spirit of the law.” It has to pass the small test.

Communicate Often
Keep information moving through the pipelines. This doesn’t mean just speaking, it also means listening. There is a reason that we have two ears and only one mouth. Building trust comes down to engaging others, whether they’re customers or employees or communities.

Share Power
Leaders who share ownership and success win trust. They recognize that creating collaborative networks can repair trust when it has been damaged. When employees feel safe to voice different opinions, the trust factor builds and performance is enhanced.

And so… 

BHP has withdrawn its offer to buy the PotashCorp. The good people of Saskatchewan, who so value truth and trust, will be watching to see that PotashCorp keeps the promises made during this public war over one of their most treasured industries. Will the company be transparent, communicate often and work with us collaboratively?

If it does, it can be a shining example of leadership for people everywhere…in all walks of life. Either way, we have a case study on trust, in the making.?