The 4 Levels of Trust

Mark Murphy | | Cadence, CEO Advisor

I heard Stephen M.R. Covey speak at the Vistage International Conference in Dallas in January 2013 and was moved by his valuable work around “The Speed of Trust©.” Trust is one of those vague terms in our language like “love.” We all know whether it’s there or not, but we’re not sure how to get it, keep it, measure it, or what to do about it when it’s missing.

Covey did a masterful job of dissecting the subject and presenting the “anatomy” of trust in a way that provides simple but powerful access to this critical element of leadership. As CEO’s, we know that nothing happens unless our people trust us.

Trust exists on four levels according to Covey:

  • Integrity
  • Intent
  • Capabilities
  • Results

In order to lead, you must earn and maintain these four levels of trust. In the event of a breach in this trust, a CEO loses followers and some form of disengagement and/or fragmentation within the company often result.

How Followers Prioritize The Levels of Trust

At the foundation of trust is faith in your integrity. Your people must believe that what you say is fundamentally true; that your words and actions are honest. The next layer of trust is belief in good intent. Trust in your intent means that your followers believe that you have their best interests and the best interests of the company in mind. They believe that you are forthright in the direction you intend to go. Next comes trust in your capabilities. Simply put, your followers see you as a capable CEO. You know what you are doing. And finally, the last rung on the trust ladder is trust in the visible results. This is the trust that comes from measurable progress. You have led the company successfully so far and can therefore be trusted to achieve future goals.

A Breach in Trust Leads to a Loss in Followers

If trust is breached at one of these levels, you will lose your followership because you have lost their trust. The degree of loss depends greatly on which level of trust has been violated. If a CEO fails to deliver a project on time, or a new product is not as successful as planned, then trust in visible results is shaken. A CEO can recover from this breach because his/her followers still trust in their leader’s integrity, intent and abilities. They may stay on board because they believe that they are being led by an honest, dedicated and capable individual. On the other hand, if a CEO proves to lack integrity, the breach in trust is far more serious. Even in the face of stellar results, if your people do not perceive you as honest, they will not be inclined to follow you.

The Symptoms of Absent Trust

The disintegration of trust in the CEO has a profoundly negative impact on the company. There are two directions that people tend to head when they cease to follow the lead of the CEO: disengagement and fragmentation. The first, disengagement, arises when the employee has no motivation to progress. They cease to be productive, and come to dread the idea of going into work. The second, fragmentation, refers to the division of your people into different camps. Employees who still feel a drive to be productive, but do not trust you enough to follow you, will strike out in their own direction(s). If the breach in trust is widespread, they will gather followers. This lack of alignment in purpose and path will eventually create a sort of inter-office turf war.

To effectively lead, you need more than the title “CEO.” Indeed, that label is only as strong as the trust that the company’s employees place in you. To achieve the status of leader, you must first earn, and then maintain, your people’s trust in your integrity, intent, capabilities, and results.

“The Speed of Trust” Copyright © 2006 by CoveyLink, LLC

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is an Advisor to CEOs and a Vistage Group Chair serving chief executive officers throughout Orange County, California. Contact Mark Today
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