Monday, June 1, 2020


By on March 30, 2020

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Editor’s note: The following white paper was provided by FranklinCovey Puerto Rico & Dominican Republic, which is making available a series from its thought leaders, who “will share critical imperatives to achieving results during unpredictable times.” 


In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and on the day after the stock market’s worst day in over three decades, I spoke with a client who runs a technology consulting company in New York City. This CEO told me, “The disruption is devastating, and is hitting all of us. But it’s interesting to me, when something like this happens, you see leaders invest and focus on all sorts of different things they think are vital to solving the problem at hand, but you know what?

If I’m going to focus on anything, it’s going to be on trust. Trust is baseline humanity, and we need it to solve our problems. If we get better at trust, that will help us navigate everything else.”

In this time of change, crisis, and uncertainty, the greatest asset and security any leader has is their credibility. The greatest currency they have is the trust people have in them.

The greatest power they have lies in how they choose to extend trust to others.

While that’s always true, during enormous disruption, the critical currency of trust carries an even greater premium. Trust is the one thing that changes everything. We still have to do other things — collaborate, be adaptive and agile, and stay responsive to changing conditions — but what this CEO was affirming as he navigates this crisis for his business is that we can do all of those things better if we start with trust. He’s right. And if we lose it, our ability to do any of those other things is profoundly diminished.

If we do what it takes to build a high-trust culture, even in the midst of a crisis — and I would emphasize especially in the midst of a crisis — we’ll be far more agile, collaborative, creative, and innovative.

When we say “trust,” many people think of a soft, nice-to-have social virtue, and it is that — but it’s so much more. Trust is a pragmatic, hard-edged, economic, and actionable asset we can create through specific behaviors. It affects the speed at which we can move and the cost of everything.

When there’s low trust in any team, culture, organization, society, or relationship, speed goes down, and cost goes up. It’s a tax.

Think about a leader you don’t trust: They can communicate all they want, but you’ll discount what they say, or you simply won’t believe it, much less act on it. You’ll have to verify and draw your own conclusions. Low-trust organizations are ensnarled in bureaucracy and excessive controls. Low- trust team members miscommunicate, have “meetings after the meetings,” and play politics. Everything takes longer.


Thankfully, the converse is also true: When trust is high, speed goes up, and cost comes down. When credible leaders

share information or announce a plan, their teams get to work. Communication and collaboration are seamless. Teams feel safe to innovate and take smart risks. High trust earns a dividend; it’s a performance multiplier.


Teams and organizations that operate with high trust significantly outperform teams and organizations with low trust — this has been proven in dozens of studies, across a multitude of industries and sectors. The “How Report” study conducted by consulting firm LRN, for example, found that people who work in high-trust cultures are “six times more likely to achieve higher levels of performance compared with others in their industry.”

Tapping into this level of performance during a crisis is vital.


The advice for most crises is to communicate, communicate, communicate. I agree. But if you stand up and communicate without being credible or having trust or telling the truth, you’re going to dig a deeper hole. How you do what you do makes all the difference, and it will also increase your credibility.

Think about it: if we’re not credible when we communicate, people won’t believe what we’re saying. They may not care or take stock in our advice. They may question our agenda or doubt our motives. We must focus first on building credibility through both our character and competence and then earning trust through a few key behaviors.

The behaviors we need to emphasize during the times of crisis are the same behaviors we needed during times of non-crisis. They just become even more important because the degree of difficulty has gone up. We need to be intentional and deliberate about those behaviors.

Thirteen specific behaviors are common to every high-trust, highly engaged culture, and 13 opposite and counterfeit behaviors are found in every low-trust, toxic, dysfunctional culture. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to build trust over months and years; we’ve been thrown into a new environment.

There are four of the 13 behaviors that are disproportionately leveraged during a crisis, and I’ll cover them in the following sections:

  • Confront Reality
  • Create Transparency
  • Talk Straight
  • Extend Trust

We’ll spend extra time in “Extend Trust” covering its specific application to remote work.

Interestingly, during major disruptions, leaders tend to drift not to the opposite of a high-trust behavior — but to the counterfeit. I’ll cover those in detail below.


High-trust leaders take things head-on, even the tough things. Confronting reality means discussing the undiscussable and calling out the elephant in the room.

The opposite of confronting reality is to ignore it, act as though it doesn’t exist, and hope it will go away in time. The counterfeit is to act like we’re confronting reality when we’re actually evading it. We might focus on busywork or ancillary issues, instead of tackling the tough root causes of the challenges at hand. We kick the can down the road. We skirt reality or give lip service to it, versus facing the hard news that it’s bad now and it may get worse. Acknowledging the elephant in the room, or merely talking about it, is very different from taking it head-on.

How we receive bad news the first time often determines whether or not we will continue to receive bad news. But we can’t solve a problem we don’t understand. We need the bad news. We have to confront and work through it, not around it. If team members, peers, or experts share difficult information, we don’t hide from it. We take it head-on.

Doing so inspires trust and confidence.


Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson said, “Transparency is ‘job one’ for leaders in a crisis.” We must be open and authentic and real. Transparency is drawn from the principle of light: it cleanses, dissipates the shadows, and enables people to see. It gives them a sense of comfort and confidence. They know nothing is hidden.



The opposite of creating transparency is to hide or cover-up. It includes hoarding, withholding information, keeping secrets, or having hidden agendas. It’s darkness. The counterfeit of creating transparency is being open…to a point. It’s an illusion, revealing some things and covering up others, worrying that too much information might make people fearful. It’s when we share information in a way, or to a degree, while still trying to control people’s response to it. But that causes more destruction and harm.

If we try to hide the bad news, we will lose credibility and trust with our audiences, our constituents, and our people — they’ll likely find out at some point anyway. The best way to handle this is to be upfront about the information we have. When we know things, we share what we know. When we don’t know things, we say what we don’t know and what we’re doing to learn those things and how we’re trying to respond. If we know things we can’t share, or it wouldn’t be appropriate or responsible to share, we tell people we can’t share, and why. We are transparent about  why we might not be able to be transparent. We model transparency. We tell the truth in a way people can verify for themselves.


Now more than ever, we have to tell the truth, even difficult truths. We have to call things what they are.

The opposite of talking straight is lying or deceiving, but I especially want to contrast talking straight to the counterfeit, which

is when we spin, position, posture, or manipulate. During a time like today, it’s very understandable to think; I don’t want to panic people. So the temptation is to soft-pedal the news. We might feel like we’re going to be less alarming and frightening if we downplay things, but if we do that, then every time we speak, people will wonder, Are they sugarcoating again? Is this real?

Can I trust this?

At the same time, some might swing the pendulum all the way to the other side. We’re not trying to become alarmist and paint the absolute worst-case scenario, which can cause an emotional contagion that’s extraordinarily distressing. But we also don’t want to go to the extreme of saying everything is fine, there are no problems, and nothing is going to change — when everyone can look around and see everything is changing in front of their eyes. We have to find the sweet spot.

Get a reputation for being clear and upfront about bad news. People might not always like what they hear, but they’ll learn they can trust what they hear. With that, our ability to communicate will go up. Our ability to connect with our people and instill confidence in them will go up.

One of the most potent ways to talk straight is to start our meetings, discussions, and communications by declaring our intent.

We should give not only the “what,” but especially the “why” behind the information we’re sharing or the direction we’re asking teams to take.


During crisis and disruption, the tendency for even high-trust leaders is to backtrack and revert to more of a “command and control” style of leadership.

Think of a person who’s moved to another country and spoken the language fluently for years. When they stub their toe, they aren’t going to swear in the foreign language — they’ll go back to their native tongue. Extending trust is like an acquired language; it’s not necessarily instinctive and natural for people, especially under stress. And during crisis, or disruption, our tendency is to go back to what we know, what we were trained in, scripted in, and maybe what we’re good at. For many, that means going back to “command and control” versus what I refer to as “trust and inspire.”

So often the reason is fear: fear of the unknown, of the risk of it going wrong, that people aren’t ready, that they’ll take advantage of it, that they aren’t capable, that they aren’t motivated, or that they won’t deliver.

When we lead in a way that shows distrust to our people, it doesn’t inspire any of the kind of performance we need from them; it does just the opposite. Not only do we show them we don’t believe they can rise to the occasion, but we deny them the opportunity to even try. And our distrust is reciprocated.

One of the main reasons employees in many organizations don’t trust their managers is simply because the managers don’t trust their employees. Thankfully, this reciprocity goes both ways. Trust begets trust. People rise to the occasion. They perform better. Trust brings out the very best in others. In fact, I would say that being trusted is the most inspiring form of human motivation.

Neuroscience is strong on this: High-trust cultures are more energized, more engaged, less stressed out, and less burnt out. In Harvard Business Review, researcher Paul J. Zak reported on more than a decade of research, and his data showed that: “Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 40% less burnout
  • 41% greater sense of accomplishment


The more trust someone has in their leader and their company, the less fear they’re going to have. My definition for trust is confidence. And in many ways, confidence is the opposite of fear.

We must both say and demonstrate that we trust our people. The strength of this behavior is in the reciprocity. Distrust is contagious, but so is trust. Trusting our people can become a virtuous upward spiral where trust and confidence create more trust and confidence, and everyone feels inspired by it.

So trust your people. If someone says they’re sick, believe them. (I just read about an organization requiring a doctor’s note if employees call in sick — during a pandemic. Talk about a lack of trust!) Trust your teams, and not only will they perform better, the trust will come back to you.

The very act of modeling the first three behaviors — confront reality, create transparency and talk straight — demonstrates extending trust to others because it shows that you believe they can handle the truth of what’s really going on. Conversely, when you model a counterfeit version of those behaviors, it shows that you don’t really trust them to be able to handle it. So, again, trust your people.


Nearly all organizations are currently facing this in the context of telecommuting. Many organizations haven’t allowed remote work for some or all of their employees. So often, leaders have justified this by saying, “We have to be together to collaborate.” That might be true, but in at least some situations, the dominant mindset of leaders is really, “We have to be together because I have to keep my eye on everyone. If they were on their own, in their homes, they might be goofing off.” Remote work is a trust issue in many respects, even though some leaders might never acknowledge it.

If we implement remote work with a surfeit of rules, we’re allowing fear to overcome trust — and people can sense it. As a result, we’ll suboptimize performance dramatically, send the wrong message, and lose a huge opportunity to extend (and receive) trust.

The opposite of extending trust in this context would be saying, “I flat out don’t rust you, and I’m telling you I don’t trust you.” The counterfeit of extending trust in this case is saying we’re going to trust people to telecommute from home, then loading them up with excessive rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. Our words might say we trust them, but as we then micromanage them through systems, our actions say very clearly that we don’t. We dictate methods and procedures and processes. We’re basically communicating, “I don’t really trust you; I just have no choice now.”

Leaders are used to being in control.

They’re often fearful that people could take advantage of remote work. The reality is that a few might, but we shouldn’t let the 5% of the people who we can’t trust define the 95% of the people who we can. Both leaders and team members want to make sure the job gets done and want to succeed. If we set clear expectations, agree upon a process for accountability, and build it upfront into an agreement, we can extend smart trust.

Make sure everyone is clear on the expectations of what we’re trying to accomplish:

  • What results are we after?
  • Are there any guidelines we need to be aware of? (Guidelines might be the closest thing to rules, but guidelines should be broader. The moment leaders start to prescribe methods; they then become responsible for results. We want to give the team member that responsibility.)
  • What resources do we have to work with?

Then, shift accountability to the team member. They will report back on how they’re doing against the agreement.

Leaders still build in control, but it’s self- control. It’s coming from the team member. It’s not a micromanagement control coming from a hovering supervisor. It looks and feels different. In fact, there’s actually more control in a high-trust culture than a rules-based culture. The reality is that you can’t come up with enough rules to “manage” people you don’t trust. So learn to trust them.


An important note: These four behaviors will give you a clear path in the coming months. But if we do the behaviors without the foundation of our own personal credibility, the behaviors could become manipulative or technique-like and they will backfire.

Think about the term “con man”: it’s short for “confidence man.” Confidence is trust; so a con man is someone who earns your trust now, with the intention to hurt or deceive you later. They perform the behaviors to earn trust, but their credibility is lacking. They don’t have integrity; their intent is self-serving.

The behaviors absent from the foundation of credibility ultimately don’t work. They’re counterproductive and could even exacerbate problems.

The behaviors do accelerate trust when they’re based on the foundation of credibility. I define credibility as character and competence:

  • Character is our integrity and intent. Integrity is more than honesty; it’s being congruent, inside and out. It’s aligning our actions with our values. Intent is our motive and agenda. Trust grows when our motive is based on care, and when our agenda is straightforward and based on mutual benefit. Essentially it’s, “Yes, I care about my win, but I care about your win as much as I do my own. And I care about you.”
  • Competence derives from our capabilities and our results. Are our capabilities current? Are they relevant? In the pandemic crisis we’re facing, we need to borrow strength from experts in public health because most leaders don’t have capability in this area. We can’t act like we know something we don’t know. We can’t pretend we’re an expert in an area we’re not an expert in. We need to bring in their strength, so we stay capable and relevant.

Our competence secondly derives from results, our performance. Does our track record give people confidence that we deliver, that we do what we say we’re going to do? Are we modeling what we want to see in others?

Before we implement any high-trust behavior, the onus is on each leader to first look in the mirror and assess their credibility. Then with that in place, these behaviors are great accelerators and vital dimensions to building trust during disruption.


Almost without exception, trust tends to go down during change, transition, or crisis — if we’re not intentional about cultivating it. And most leaders are not deliberate, because they’re caught up in reacting and responding to the emergencies that are arising.

But if we’re intentional about building trust through our behaviors, we can actually

increase trust in a time of crisis. It’s not easy, but it is possible — by confronting reality, creating transparency, talking straight, and proactively extending smart trust, all from a foundation of personal credibility.

We can communicate and collaborate and innovate and solve the challenges facing us. We can be agile and adaptive and responsive and creative. We can conquer these challenges and come out even stronger — but only if we trust each other first.

—Stephen M. R. Covey is The New York Times and #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Speed of Trust, which has been translated into 22 languages and has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. He is also coauthor of the #1 Amazon bestseller Smart Trust.

Covey brings to his writings the perspective of a practitioner as he is the former president and CEO of the Covey Leadership Center, where he increased shareholder value by 67 times and grew the company to become the largest leadership development firm in the world.

A Harvard MBA, Covey cofounded and currently leads FranklinCovey’s Global Speed of Trust Practice. He serves on numerous boards including the Government Leadership Advisory Council, and he has been recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award for “Top Thought Leaders in Trust” from Trust Across America — Trust Around the World™.

Stephen is a highly sought-after international speaker and has taught trust and leadership in 56 countries to business, government, military, education, healthcare, and NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) entities.

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