Do you have an authenticity gap?

Written by Kevin Murray, CMgr CCMI Tuesday 04 August 2020
You are honest and have integrity – no doubt. What you have to address are the inconsistencies that make you appear dishonest...
Person doing up suit buttons

Trust and leadership go hand in hand, for very few people are willing to be led by someone they do not trust. If a leader is not trusted, that lack of trust becomes contagious, and members of the team soon start distrusting each other. The contagion can quickly spread in a company and out to customers and other stakeholders.

A lack of trust is one of the unfortunate by-products of this Covid-blighted world, as we are viewing everyone with suspicion. Does that person have the virus? Is this company doing enough to protect me? Is my boss planning to get rid of me? Suspicion is only natural now but can have dangerous consequences.

Leaders have to focus on building trust, because trust is possibly the single most important element of building effective teams. However, you cannot build trust if people don’t trust you. To do that, people need to know who you are. They need to know that you know what you’re talking about. And they need to believe that you have their best interests – and an honourable cause – at heart. They trust you for your character, your competence and your integrity.

They don’t trust you when you remain aloof, hard to read and mysterious. In this case, they will always wonder what your agenda really is and whether you’re being completely truthful. More than anything else, this will undermine their willingness to give maximum effort, and they will be inclined always to keep one eye on you and one eye on their work, thus dissolving their focus and effectiveness. Worse still, that wariness will translate itself into a lack of willingness to trust colleagues.

Once you start a chain reaction of mistrust, you also trigger a lack of respect. A lack of respect translates into a lack of respect for teammates, and for customers. And all of that inevitably leads to disastrous results. When you build trust, you build strong relationships, which lead to better business. The business benefits of trust are enormous.

It is essential that a leader is trusted, gives trust and fosters trust in the team

For leaders to be trusted, they have to be authentic, principled, humble and honest. They also have to be highly visible and visibly committed to every person in the team, to the vision and to the culture of the team. These are all skills that can be practised for maximum effect. To be skilled in all of these areas, however, leaders must be self-aware. Again, this is another skill, which can be developed and honed.

Perhaps the single most important trait, though, is honesty

If I was to ask you whether you thought you were honest, whether you behaved with integrity, and whether you had a strong set of principles, I have little doubt that the answer would be yes. I also have little doubt that this is true.

The problem comes in inconsistent behaviours, inadvertent hypocrisy, and a simple lack of self-awareness, along with a lack of understanding of your impact on others. It is in these areas that trust breaks down.

While managers say they are honest, a worryingly large number of employees disagree. Overall, 90% of managers I have interviewed believe they have a strongly authentic persona. They believe absolutely that they have integrity and are sincere. Sadly, only half of employees agree and nearly a third actively disagree.

Among employees who have their doubts about their managers (and there are many) there are likely to be feelings of uncertainty, wariness and even danger. Their managers will appear to them to be unpredictable, hypocritical and insincere.

Without integrity, leaders will soon fail

If, for example, you keep choosing what’s convenient over what’s right, your team will quickly lose faith. As leaders, we always have to make decisions that, in some ways, define who we are. Without a strong set of values to help guide us, our decision-making will soon become inconsistent at best, and potentially confusing and damaging at worst.

Leadership is an act of courage, and being courageous often means standing up for the things you truly believe in, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Those without integrity will stand up for very little, and hypocrisy quickly follows.

As leaders we are being scrutinised every single moment, and everything we say, everything we do and every decision we make will be picked over by our teams, who will be quick to interpret those actions through their own set of filters.

To avoid being thought of as potentially dishonest, or lacking in principles, it becomes necessary to be radically transparent with people – absolutely straight with them about what decisions you’re making and why. It is then especially important to ensure there is no gap between your words and actions. This is an area, from my experience, that most leaders are simply unable to see as a weakness. Followers often pay more heed to what you do than what you say.

If you say bullying is unacceptable but do nothing about the super-salesman who is domineering and a bully, the signal you are sending is very different to your words. Followers will take their cue from how you behave, not your words, and the damage is done.

This gap between your actions and your words is potentially one of the most toxic to your leadership effectiveness. Your followers will be watching for consistency – both in your language and in your behaviour. If you even slightly change your story or treat one member of the team differently to the others, this will send danger signals that you are not to be trusted. You have to be acutely aware of being consistent or explain fully why not when you behave in an inconsistent manner.

I have no doubt that you are honest, sincere and principled. To convince your followers, you need to practise the behaviours that demonstrate your honesty and integrity every day. Without fail.

The following are some potential ‘authenticity gaps’ to watch out for:

  • Employees will judge your integrity based on whether you do what you say you’ll do. If you make a promise, deliver it or your integrity will be questioned.
  • Ambiguity is your enemy. If you’re not crystal-clear about things, people might develop false expectations or misunderstand, and the next time you act they’ll think you’re being inconsistent simply because they never understood you the first time round.
  • Defensiveness can be a killer. When people believe that you are closed-minded about a situation, they will hesitate to bring you problems. They will especially avoid you if you tend to go on a counterattack whenever you are confronted with an issue. You have to practise being open and receptive to problems, even those of your own making.
  • Being too egotistical can also lead to people doubting your integrity. If people see you talking up your own achievements, or trying to demonstrate your intelligence too much, they will soon begin to doubt whether you have their best interests at heart. The worst thing you can ever do is take credit for things your staff have done.
  • Never, ever lie. Even slight inconsistencies in what you say will be picked up by members of your team but being called out on a lie (or even denying a truth) is fatal to your credibility. If you are challenged on something and are unable or not allowed to respond, for whatever reason, it is always better to simply say that you’re not able to talk about that at this stage. Promise to get back to them as soon as you can.

Think carefully about how you should behave differently, when you expect employees to change what they’re doing. These visible signals will encourage change, because employees will be watching you intently to see whether you’re prepared to change as well. Only when your behaviours reinforce a new culture, will they believe you.

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Kevin Murray CMgr CCMI is a business author and speaker with more than 45 years of leadership experience. This is an exclusive extract from his new book Charismatic Leadership: The skills you can learn to motivate high performance in others (published by Kogan Page). You can find out more about his work here.

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