New Year’s Resolution For Leaders Everywhere: Gaining the Trust of Your People


Since the Weinstein scandal broke, I have fielded many requests from organizational leaders to give them advice on how to ensure that their organizations are not exposed as the result of uncovered improper behaviours. Most are looking to double down on harassment training, which has proven to be a totally ineffective approach to tackling the issue of abuse and harassment for the same reasons that diversity and inclusion programs have failed to move the needle a notch. I assert the reason for this is that emotional intelligence is not being applied.

The concept of emotional intelligence has been around for decades and although most relate to it, leadership has not effectively applied it in their environments, largely because the perceptions are that it is soft. I assert the opposite, and that it has very hard outcomes.

The Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence and the Faas Foundation have embarked on an initiative whose mission is to help create emotionally intelligent leaders, organizations and communities through the transformations of organizational culture, emotional climates and evidence based practices.

Because of the perceptions, most of the executives reject the prerequisite requirement for my engagement, which is to conduct a culture/climate assessment to determine how emotional intelligence the organization is.

So what are the characteristics of an emotionally intelligent group? It is where:

  • Unnecessary stress is minimal.

  • There is freedom of expression.

  • Feelings are factored into decisions.

  • There is a maximum amount of transparency. (No open secrets)

  • Behavioral norms are clear and understood.

  • Improper behaviors and other wrongdoings are checked at the first whiff of the problem.

  • Clear value exchanges are in place.

  • The human element takes precedent over technologies in leading.

  • The four R’s are constantly applied – The RIGHT people, doing the RIGHT things, the RIGHT way, at the RIGHT time.

Vanessa Druskat and Stephen Wolf, in a Harvard Business Review article on group emotional intelligence, outlined the three conditions for emotional intelligence to have a positive impact – trust amongst members, a sense of group identity, and a sense of group efficacy. What should be added is that without trust amongst members, it is impossible to achieve identity and efficacy.

Based on my experience as a senior executive and consultant, extensive research conducted for my books, articles and blog posts, the number one unnecessary stress factor is the lack of trust and respect employees have in leadership and, by extension, the organizations and institutions.

Rarely a day goes by when there is not a story in the media about abuse of power, inappropriate behaviour, corruption and greed on the part of leadership in every segment of our society worldwide. Whether the sector is business, industry, education, social services, military, police, sport, media, entertainment, not-for-profit, law or religion – none are immune. While this is significant, the question of trust and respect goes far beyond the unethical and illegal.

Leadership is also assessed on whether they deliver on the commitments they make, the extent to which they support the people they are responsible for, are aware of what is really going on in their domain, and take responsibility for situations when things go south or there is a crisis.

On support – in the workplace, the ‘Mind the Workplace’ study, conducted by Mental Health America and the Faas Foundation, shows that only 36 percent of North American workers can rely on their boss for support.

On awareness – a recent C-Suite study in Canada revealed that 94 percent of executives do not believe that sexual harassment is an issue in their organizations. In most of the recent exposures, sexual harassment has been going on for years, and in some cases decades. Leaders in most of the institutions have claimed they were not aware.

On taking responsibility – Wells Fargo is perhaps the most glaring example of leadership not taking responsibility and adding to their lack of credibility, throwing 5,200 junior level employees under the bus. In reviewing the number of instances of wrongdoing, placing the blame on subordinates has been a consistent initial response. Mary Barra stands out for taking responsibility when she, shortly after inheriting the ignition switch scandal, introduced herself at a congressional hearing said, “My name is Mary Barra, and I am the chief executive officer of General Motors … and I am deeply sorry.”

In every relationship, there is a value exchange where there are expectations that each party has of one another. When expectations are not met and/or there is no reciprocity, trust and respect erodes. This is something that I learned fairly early in my career.

On being appointed to head National Grocers, the shared services division of Loblaw Companies Ltd., Canada’s largest retail chain, I commenced a quarterly visit to all of our distribution facilities across the country, where we had town hall meetings with every shift.

In the first of these meetings we outlined the expectations we had of the facility; and we asked for feedback on what employees expected from us to deliver on the expectations we had of them. Among the expectations were facility improvements, including cleaner washrooms, lockers and cafeteria – a pretty basic and easy one to deliver on.

A year or so into my tenure, while I was in a city where we had a facility, I thought I would drop in for a quick visit. Shortly after arriving, I went to the washroom and was appalled by the condition it was in – much different than what we saw during our quarterly visits.

Seething, I went to the plant manager’s office and politely asked him to call someone to bring a pail, Lysol, Windex, a mop, sponges and paper towels. Confused, the manager asked why, to which he got my response – “just humour me, ok?” The cleaning supplies arrived; I took off my suit jacket, rolled up my shirtsleeves, and headed to the washroom, followed by an anxious manager and the man who brought the supplies. People working on the floor all observed this, causing a bit of a buzz.

Once in the bathroom, I said to the plant manager, “I’ll start with the toilets, and you do the urinals”; and to the guy who brought the supplies, “you supervise”.  Well, both of them (excuse the pun) did not know whether to shit or go blind, but they were smart enough not to argue.

Once finished, I asked whether it was necessary to do the other washrooms on the premises, to which I received assurances that it was not. On leaving, I indicated that I would be back in a week to have a town hall meeting with all shifts.

As you can imagine, this incident was relayed to all of our facilities by nightfall, without me having to say a single word.

At the meetings the following week, I apologized on behalf of management that we had not delivered on their expectation of us. I also expressed disappointment that they had not delivered on our expectation of them, which was to call us out on when we were failing, by saying, “We have no problem in calling you out; and for us to be able to trust each other, it’s got to be reciprocal.”

This single incident solidified a strong relationship we enjoyed for almost a decade, where we moved from being a significant laggard against industry performance benchmarks to becoming a leader.

Many people may view this as an insignificant incident; however, it sent a powerful message that trust and respect is not earned by words alone.

Through this I learned that leadership became pretty easy after earning the trust and respect of those for whom I was responsible.

For leaders everywhere I encourage you to have building trust and respect as your New Year’s resolution by factoring feelings into everything you do, first by reflecting on whether people trust you. If they do, and continue to, you will have a Happy New Year!