Trust Precedes Innovation: Why Leading with Intent Matters

By Doug Turner

Innovation is an elusive concept. All organizations strive to have more of it, but most seldom succeed. Various functional departments within organizations have all claimed from time to time to have “the answer.” Engineering and design groups claim to be the source of the most relevant innovation, as do the business development and marketing departments, the supply chain group, the finance folks and so on.

There still seems to be something missing, and it is not surprising to see that HR is now being called on to help play key roles in enhancing innovation. This just makes sense because innovation is a human exercise which depends on one of the most basic human instincts…trust.

Bring Trust to the Forefront
PeopleTalk’s winter 2013 cover story, “HR: The Innovation Driver” showed how people, not necessarily organizational, issues are paramount. All three contributors mention the importance of collaboration, cross-functional idea sharing, multi-level cooperation, and facilitating the free expression of innovative ideas. The word “trust” is mentioned in passing, but it needs to be brought to the forefront as an objective in and of itself, if we really want to get to the heart of the matter.

It has been shown by several authors—amongst them Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard—and through several surveys done by the likes of Edelman and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, that the level of trust in the corporate environment is the most significant differentiator between corporations that are successful and innovative and those that are not.

Distrust Impacts Potential
The reasons for this are found in the fundamental requirements for innovation. In order for innovation to occur there needs to be room for a difference of opinion, even disagreement, between ideas and approaches. This creates the creative energy needed for new things to be expressed, evaluated, accepted and implemented.

The problem is that in environments where there is a low level of trust, differences tend to be divisive and threatening, whereas if people trust each other, differences are seen as strengths, and ideas are freely exchanged.

So what is the biggest cause of distrust? In the context of innovation, a lack of understanding around “intent”—one of Covey’s four cores of trust—rises to the top of the list; the other three are integrity, capabilities and results, which all play a role in building trust. Intent, however, is key.

Leading with Intent Answers WIIFM
People need to feel comfortable with the “why” when a leader is suggesting or requesting an action or direction to be followed. People wonder whose interests are being served. Does the leader really have the best interests of the organization at heart, or are they out for their own gain? What is their agenda?

When faced with accepting—or at least being open to—something new or different, people instinctively ask themselves the famous WIIFM question, “What’s in it for me?” This is basic human instinct and must be recognized by everybody who is attempting to promote anything new.

What will help this? Recognizing the importance of intent in building trust is key. Leaders need to pursue mastery in conveying their intent to ensure it is acceptable and embraced by the larger team.

To do this, we must focus on communicating the mutual benefit of any given idea or suggestion. Is it truly a win-win? We must be sensitive to needs, particularly the needs of the others, not just our own. The best practice is to proverbially put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, s so that we can be confident of how our message will land.

An Attitude of Abundance
Moreover, in building trust, it is important to portray an attitude of abundance in everything we do. If people are confident that there is “enough to go around”—enough support, enough money, enough praise, enough recognition—people will be less concerned with protecting, criticising and competing.

As leaders, whether in or outside HR, we must be open and declare our intent, so that others have no doubt about where we are coming from. This must be genuine and verifiable. People will, and do, check up on leaders to make sure there are no inconsistencies.

Are we saying what we really believe? Do our actions match our words?

In summary, it is only when people are confident that their interests are being accommodated, that there are rewards for all and that their leaders are genuine, that high levels of trust can flourish. Only when these conditions are met will differences be seen as strengths, and innovation given the grounds to thrive.

Doug Turner, Msc., MBA is a leadership and executive coach at True Balance Coaching.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2014)

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