Chester Barnard was one of the first writers who observed that trustworthy leadership yields trust and cooperation. Barnard was a rare individual who worked in a major corporation (New Jersey Bell) for 40 years and rose to a position of leadership; afterward, he wrote insightfully about that leadership experience. Barnard noted that the key to organizational survival and prosperity was cooperation, communication, and a shared sense of purpose. He further argued that leaders could only lead when they were perceived to be trustworthy by the rest of the organization. Even in the 1930s, Barnard argued that authority is completely a function of the willingness of subordinates to cooperate with the leader. Barnard was well ahead of his time. 1
Warren Bennis argues that the traditional idea of a “heroic” individual leading followers through sheer force of will is a myth. Instead, he argues for creative and productive partnerships among a group of individuals as being the only viable way forward. He emphasizes the importance of those in leadership positions needing to learn how to generate and sustain trust so as to enable organizations to survive the increasingly turbulent changes swirling around and within today’s organizations. 2
Some argue that there is so much distrust in the workplace today that leaders can no longer rely on trustworthy leadership as an organizing principle. While it is true that there is very little trust in most of the organizations today, it is not true that mistrust on the part of followers cannot be diminished over time. For example, in a recent experimental research study, trustworthy players were found to be more effective in obtaining mutual cooperation than untrustworthy players, even given a history of distrust prior to engagement. Trustworthy players did this through signaling reassurance, rather than fearful messages, to the potential partner. 3 In sum, trustworthiness is essential to change, and it can even overcome a mistrusting disposition.
Others argue that it is human nature to resist change, and that organizational changes are even more challenging than individual change. However, this viewpoint is too pessimistic, and both the empirical evidence and common sense suggest that human beings generally want to be part of something that is changing for the better, if there is trustworthy leadership driving that change and if they are involved in helping to decide the nature and pacing of the changes. 4
Dynamic stability is the new normal; static states of equilibrium are becoming rarer in organizations. Trustworthy leadership helps to reduce the pain associated with organizational change, 5 and it yields increased employee engagement. 6Trustworthiness can lead to more creative work, and organizational innovation is impossible without trustworthy leadership. 7