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How managers can become trustworthy leaders

Christopher Long is the Assistant Professor of Management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He’s an expert in the areas of leadership, organizational design, and organizational change and consults multi-national corporations on issues related to these areas.

In this interview with the MBA Crystal Ball team, he shares his views on leadership and organizational control. He also discusses how leaders can promote organizational fairness and foster trust.

Q & A with Professor Christopher P Long

In conversation with MBA Crystal Ball

Christopher Long: Georgetown UniversityMBA Crystal Ball: From your exposure and expertise in the areas of business, politics and defence, how does the expectation from leaders differ in each?

Professor Long: The principles of great leadership are universal. Specifically, leaders need to create environments where their people feel, at the same time, directed and empowered. Leaders do this by acting in ways their followers will view as effective and appropriate, by developing relationships of a quality that their followers view as interpersonally appealing, and by helping their followers achieve personal and professional victories.

This last point is important because context always matters. As the goals leaders are trying to accomplish in business, political, and military contexts differ, leaders must effectively tailor what they do to the needs of the specific people they are leading. For example, military leaders who transition to civilian positions often find that, while their leadership skills are excellent, how they deploy those skills in the civilian world differ a great deal from the ways they deployed those skills in a military environment.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you explain the different forms of leadership (personal, contextual, relational)?

Professor Long: One way to think about these forms of leadership is that they constitute the foundational elements that enable leaders to effectively direct and empower their people. Also, it is important to note that these are sets of behaviors. Although they may emphasize particular behaviors at points in time, complete leaders maintain the capacity to effectively deploy elements of personal, relational, and contextual leadership at all times.

Through personal leadership, leaders speak and act in ways that provide their followers with a sense of who they are as a person and what they individually bring to the leadership function. Effective personal leaders demonstrate authenticity to their followers by clearly living their particular values, displaying their capacities to perform various production and leadership tasks while they enact their commitment to do what is right.

Through relational leadership, leaders focus on developing effective relationships with their followers. Effective relational leaders build trust among their followers by actively displaying concerns for their needs and interests, a level of respect for who they are and what they do, a willingness to fulfil the implicit and explicit commitments they make to those followers, and an unwavering desire to treat those followers fairly.

Through contextual leadership, leaders concentrate on helping their subordinates understand and operate effectively in the particular environment that surrounds them and their work. Effective contextual leaders create processes and systems that coordinate the work of their followers. They do this, in part, by helping those followers decipher key elements of the work environments that they must engage to execute their tasks. They also enact particular rules, procedures, and norms that clarify the roles and responsibilities each of their followers need to play in production efforts.
MBA Crystal Ball: Why do you consider relational leadership superior to other forms when it comes to trust-building?

Professor Long: In research that I have done with Morela Hernandez (University of Virginia) and Sim Sitkin (Duke University), we have found that the quality of interpersonal relationships leaders develop with their followers plays a central role in how followers develop trust in their leaders. It is important to acknowledge that leaders who demonstrate authenticity and character (i.e., personal leadership) and who effectively manage work environments (i.e., contextual leadership) are able to more easily develop positive relationships with their employees. They embody qualities that followers value and are able to understand followers’ needs, interests, and concerns. In the end, however, followers base their trust evaluations largely on whether their leaders demonstrate an active care and concern about them and their individual needs.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you share examples of how relational leadership manifests itself in diverse organisations? Are there similarities and differences depending upon the size of the organisation, hierarchy and cultural differences?

Professor Long: The basic dynamics of relational leadership play out in similar ways in any type of organization. The challenge leaders face in diverse organizations is that they need to be focused on identifying how they can demonstrate concern for and show respect to followers who may have perspectives and priorities that differ from their own. That generally means they will need to spend time with their people, first to understand their needs, interests, and values, and second to actively display their willingness to fight for those things.

As organizations grow, they often (although not always) become more formalized. When this happens, it can compromise the capacities of individual leaders to demonstrate more personally focused care and concern for their individual followers. Leaders just need to be aware of that so that they can actively engage their followers in ways that foster positive relationships and generate significant impact. Even within these types of environments, there are abundant opportunities for leaders to engage in highly personal conversations and activities that can make their followers feel like they are being well taken care of by a leader with whom they are personally connected.
MBA Crystal Ball: Why is fairness (despite being such an obvious factor) so difficult to implement in organisations?

Professor Long: While fairness is an essential component of effective leadership, it often can be challenging to produce. Leaders know that it often takes significant time and effort to ensure they distribute rewards, resources, and responsibilities equitably (distributive fairness); they are implementing policies and procedures accurately, consistently, and in ways that are free of bias (procedural fairness); engage in effective exchanges of information and ideas (informational fairness); and do this all in ways their employees view as appropriate (interpersonal fairness).

Because doing this well can take significant time, leaders sometimes view promoting fairness as a costly, effortful endeavor that demands a lot from them. In addition, while it is important to do, it can sometimes feel risky to provide people with opportunities to exercise their voice and make their opinions heard.

This is because leaders sometimes are afraid about what they might hear and how their followers’ candid opinions on organizational issues might encourage dissent among all of their employees.

While these are understandable concerns, the reality is that fairness is a fundamental employee concern that significantly impacts their motivation, satisfaction with, and commitment to their organization. Because of this, it is almost always worth the time that managers must invest to at least try and demonstrate that they really want to be fair. If they work to promote fairness, employees will see the efforts that managers are making and will tend to reward those actions.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you explain organizational control in simple terms?

Professor Long: The term control can be used to describe a wide range of mechanisms that managers use to motivate and coordinate employees’ activities in the hope of fostering cooperation and the achievement of performance objectives. Specifically, managers use controls to inform their employees about the performance standards they want them to pursue, to monitor their efforts to achieve those standards, to evaluate their work, and to reward or punish them based on their (or lack of their) achievements.

The distinctions between input, process, and output controls simply describes the elements of the production process to which managers target the particular control mechanisms they employ. Managers generally apply output controls after work has been completed by comparing the results that employees achieve against established outcome metrics. Things like quality standards, incentives, or output goals represent examples of output controls. Managers generally apply process controls in the form of rules, norms, standard operating procedures, or other processes to their employees to encourage them to enact particular behaviors, processes, and procedures as they perform their work tasks. In addition, managers generally apply input controls in the form of things like training and socialization before or as work is beginning to prepare employees for the roles they will play in production efforts.
MBA Crystal Ball: What initiatives have proven to be successful in increasing a manager’s trustworthiness?

Professor Long: The research on this is robust and quite clear. In determining whether they trust their managers, employees examine three things: their managers’ competence, integrity, and benevolence. Managers are perceived as competent when they display a developed capacity for performing critical cognitive or technical tasks. Managers are seen as having integrity when they demonstrate a commitment to values that their employees revere, actively work to fulfill promises, and promote fairness. Managers demonstrate their benevolence by committing to accommodating their employees’ interests in their decisions and actions.

Research has shown that while situations may dictate times when a managers’ competence, integrity, or benevolence more strongly impact their employees’ trust evaluations, it always is a good idea for managers to display all three elements of trustworthiness.
MBA Crystal Ball: What behavioural aspects are common amongst managers which are actually counter-productive?

Professor Long: One of the key problems that I see is that managers feel like they always need to come up with the correct answer.

In fact, I think that most of management is about asking the right questions.

If a manager develops the capacity to do that, he or she will not only gain important information about employees and how to help them do their work, the manager also will foster a perception in them that they care and want to help them be their best.
MBA Crystal Ball: How do managers who’ve recently been elevated to a leadership position within a new organisation quickly build trust?

Professor Long: I think that there are two keys to this. Both allow managers to demonstrate their competence as well as their integrity and benevolence, the essential elements of trust.First, managers need to give employees in their new organization lots of voice. Get to know them and what they care about. Ask them what they would like to see improved while attempting to identify the consistencies and inconsistencies that employees are seeing in the organizational systems that impact their work. Commit to ongoing conversations that demonstrate that the manager sees them as partners. Schedule follow-up conversations to provide feedback about lessons learned and ask for additional input.

Second, managers should use the information generated through these conversations to develop organizational systems that produce key elements of performance and leader-follower relationships that foster high levels of trust. As changes are being made, managers should be as transparent as possible about what they are doing as they make sure and involve employees in the implementation of those policies, processes, and procedures.
MBA Crystal Ball: How would you compare aggressive managers to low-power managers? What are the pros and cons of each approach?

Professor Long: Aggressiveness is really a stylistic element that can be helpful or harmful. So, managers need to be careful to channel this appropriately. If employees agree with a manager’s priorities, goals, and values, they will back their enthusiasm, focus, and commitment. For example, if you are a manager who aggressively pursues the development of organizational policies, procedures, and systems that help employees, they will applaud you for it. However, if you are aggressive toward your employees and also not considerate of them and their needs, you will create problems for yourself. Treating employees with respect is a fundamental element of relationship building and trust so you need to maintain an unyielding commitment to that.

Power is a positive force that allows leaders to push ideas forward and make the positive changes in an organization they aim to produce.

One key issue that managers must recognize is that having a perception that they are powerful can make them aggressive.

The developing research on this is fairly clear that power focuses us on pursuing our own interests while also making us less willing to consider the needs of others. Knowing this psychological tendency can help managers temper the natural forces in ways that can help them maintain positive relationships with their employees.

Alternatively, having little power in an organization can also be a big problem. To gain power, a manager will need to spend a lot of time trying to develop their capacity to influence and affect others who might, otherwise, not consider their views. However, there is a hidden benefit to being a low-power manager or, at least, perceiving oneself as someone who is less powerful that they might actually be. In this state, managers tend to see themselves as reliant on others, which motivates them to focus on trying to accommodate the needs of others. Thus, maintaining this perspective can be quite helpful for managers who are seeking to developing trusting relationships with others in their organization.
MBA Crystal Ball: How can managers decide on the optimal use of control?

Professor Long: I often tell executives that employees always look at a few things. First, they want to know the rules of the game their organization is asking them to play. Second, they want to know that this game will be played coherently, fairly, and by players whom they can trust. Managers use controls to set up the game that is being played. Here, employees want their managers to create clear standards clear and organizational systems that make sense.

To accomplish this, managers must maintain the capacity to deploy multiple forms of control effectively. Some of my research suggests that managers often get into competency traps where they tend to focus overtime on applying only limited forms of control. This can be a problem in dynamic environments where managers must be ready to respond to a variety of rapidly shifting contingencies. The recommendation I give to managers to always have some input, process, and output controls at their disposal that they know will work with their employees. Then, have those controls at the ready to deploy as situations demand.I also suggest that, as they do this, they inform their employees of what they are doing and why.That will help them understand the rules of the game they need to play.

As they do this, I encourage managers to align their trust-building efforts with the controls they apply. For example, if they rely heavily on output controls, managers should focus on demonstrating their integrity. This is because whether they fulfill the promises they make to their employees is key to determining if they will be able to build trust in that environment.

Similarly, I suggest that managers focus on promoting fairness in ways that directly support their control efforts. For example, when managers use output controls, end-state rewards provide employees with information about the quality of their work in absolute terms and relative to their co-workers. In this environment, how managers distribute rewards across all of their employees will send them important signals about their relative performance levels. So, managers must think carefully about how they allocate those distributions.

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About Swati
After working for over a decade in technical and managerial roles in the corporate world, Swati now works as a freelancer and writes on a variety of topics including education, career guidance and self-improvement.

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