Sad Fact: Leaders Who Lie Can Be Trusted by Their Followers

Being truthful and being trustworthy aren't the same, which poses a problem for both society and the practice of leadership itself

In today’s world, it’s hard to know who to listen to and what to believe. Who’s the best Presidential candidate? Is Brexit good or bad? Which college is best for my child? Usually there’s no one “right” answer. Diverse opinions exist and “alternative facts” bolster every side.

When I write about organizational change and innovation, I often mention the role of leadership in fostering the trust essential for catalyzing positive change and high performance work cultures.

But what is trust, exactly? And how does it actually work?

Since the last Presidential election, we’ve experienced what I call an “avalanche of ambiguity.” Whatever the topic, we’re bombarded with polarizing news and social media. Many people cope with the uncertainty – and fear produced by it – by placing “trust” in the “leaders” they see as able to cut through the noise and provide guidance around what to believe and what to do. It’s easier to place trust in a single person (be it a politician, podcast host, social media influencer, etc.) and follow their lead versus evaluate every issue oneself. Leaders have become noise filters.

I recently had a chance to get an advanced preview of the book Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t and Why by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks.  The book reveals some of the deeper dynamics involved in the dynamics of trust, which has implications for both society and business. The authors specifically focus on why people give their trust to certain “messengers.”

Martin and Marks say that people often confuse truthfulness with trustworthiness. Truth is fact based and requires a weighing of evidence and likelihood. Trust is relationship based and relies on broader and vaguer assessments-;it reflects the expectations that we hold about another person’s actions and intentions. Martin and Marks say there are four major traits we all rely upon to award a messenger our trust:

  • Socio-economic position (being high profile, rich or famous)
  • Perceived competence (often determined by communication style, not actual competence)
  • Dominance (how much someone literally demands attention and possesses a ‘win at any cost’ mentality)
  • Attractiveness (physical attributes that align to social norms of beauty or even status)

Martin and Marks calls people who use these types of surface traits to influence others “hard messengers.” It’s common to fail to separate the content of a message from the communicator delivering it. Therefore, we use one or more of these hard surface traits to quickly decide whether to listen or ignore a messenger. If we listen then that can influence what we subsequently believe and who we trust-;regardless of the truth, wisdom or foolishness of what is being said.

On the other hand, when we feel comfortable and are in an environment where there is a degree of certainty and security, we are more likely to listen to what Martin and Marks call “soft messengers,” people who carry sway because they are perceived to possess connectedness with their audiences. There are four traits that make us likely to listen to these soft messengers:

  • Warmth (these are the messengers who signal their benevolence and positivity)
  • Vulnerability (when a messenger wears their heart on their sleeve)
  • Trustworthiness (the degree of confidence one has in a messenger’s capabilities and their willingness to abide by virtuous social rules and norms)
  • Charisma (a messenger who is able to present a compelling vision for the future in a dynamic, energetic way)

For example, if a company is doing well, its share price and market share are stable and employees are relatively relaxed and feeling psychologically safe, a leader who scores lower on dominant-related measures such as self-interest and ego is valued. In times of difficulty, uncertainty and reduced performance, companies are more likely to appoint harder, more dominate personalities to their boards.

All this is true in both business and politics. When uncertainty increases so does people’s fear. Fear leads to greater acceptance of hard messages and messengers. Hard messengers all going at it produces an environment of contentiousness, increasing fear and reinforcing the viability of the hard messenger approach. It’s a (negative) feedback loop.

What’s the ultimate lesson here?

Today’s avalanche of ambiguity means we’re in an environment where the “hard” message and messenger will continue to be heard. But real, enduring leadership is about values, which is at the heart of the soft messenger approach.

Today’s leaders need to recognize the reality that hard messengers have appeal in uncertain times, but not be blinded by such a one-sided, values-void approach.  Lasting leadership impact comes from a clear and compelling future vision combined with role modeling groundedness to inspire a positive, collaborative and caring approach in others. Those are the messengers we need more of today.

Soren Kaplan is the bestselling and award-winning author of Leapfrogging and The Invisible Advantage, an affiliated professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, a former corporate executive, and a co-founder of UpBOARD. He has been recognized by the Thinkers50 as one of the world’s top keynote speakers and thought leaders in business strategy and innovation.

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