On the flight last night I had a long conversation with a woman who has just become the leader of the research division of a major healthcare institution.  She has been in the job for two weeks and remarked that her most significant observation of the organization thus far is the lack of trust of the leadership…throughout the organization.  The symptoms, she noted, are CYA emails cc’ing everyone imaginable, unwillingness to make decisions or take initiative, and more time being spent on blaming than on performing.

We talked about how to approach the problem.  She indicated that she intends to conduct focus groups with employees at all levels to collect information and diagnose the problems. Good idea, but may not be the best starting point.  Focus groups may not be considered a safe place.  In an organization in which trust is the issue you can bet that people in the focus group will be very cautious about who is in the room and what is safe to say.  You are unlikely to get the information you are looking for.

She also discussed an employee attitude survey, but indicated that the organization has been surveyed several times and no action has been taken.  The credibility is low and she feels participation will be limited.


I suggested an alternative approach…start with your Customers.

YOU, the leader, need to get out and talk to your customers…find out what is working for them and what is not.  This is especially effective if you are new in the role since you can also use it as a time to introduce yourself and begin building a relationship.  The nice thing about talking with your customers is that they do not fear any of your internal trust issues and are likely to give you the straight story.  Possible downside is that being on the outside, they may not have a clear picture of what is going on inside.

Be aware, you do NOT want to ask them what they know about your internal workings and team dynamics.  You should approach the subject in a more general way and ask them simply what is working for them and what is not in the current relationship?  This opens the door for a lot of discussion, and if they are aware of troublesome internal dynamics, they will likely tell you, or at least hint at it, and you can dig deeper from there.

My experience is that by the time you have spoken to three key customers you will have heard all there is to hear and you will start hearing repeats of the same issues.

Now, here is the key.  Building trust can come from many approaches.  One of the most effective is DOING WHAT YOU SAY YOU WILL DO.  You must do something with the information you get from your customers, and you must let your employees know about it.  The customer voice carries a lot of credibility with employees.  Though they may be in denial about the feedback, they know that they must meet the customers expectations.

  • Let the employees know what the customer is saying, and what you intend to do about it.
    • DO IT!!! 
      • Let the employees know what you have done in response to the customer feedback.

With this you will begin to establish some credibility…with both customers and employees.  Now you can turn to the employees and tell them you want to hear THEIR thoughts on the organization, what is working and what is not.  At this point you are likely to get more interest and participation.  Follow-through on this and your credibility grows…as does their trust in you as the leader.