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The Most Important Leadership Trait in the Workplace [According to Global Leaders]

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It's most fitting that on the last day of Ethics Awareness Month, we highlight the number one most important leadership trait. According to a recent survey that included 195 global leaders located in 15 different countries... High ethical and moral standards... are considered to be the most important leadership trait in the workplace.

In a Harvard Business Review article covering the data, Sunnie Giles, president of Quantum Leadership Group, stated that this trait along with "communicating clear expectations" are what create a safe and trusting environment in the workplace. 

Why is trust so pivotal? In an article written by John Hamm for ICMA's PM magazine on trustworthy leaders, he states, "Because it’s a matter of human nature. When employees don’t trust their leaders, they don’t feel safe. And when they don’t feel safe, they don’t take risks. And where there is no risk taken, there is less innovation, less “going the extra mile,” and, therefore, very little unexpected upside." 

Hamm goes into further detail by providing specific things local government managers can do to provide unusually excellent, trust-building leadership at their organization, here is a short list:

  • First, realize that being trustworthy doesn’t mean you have to be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout. Men and women whose word is their honor and who can be absolutely trusted to be fair, honest, and forthright are more likely to command the respect of others than, say, the nicest guy in the room. 
  • Look for chances to reveal some vulnerability. We trust people we believe are real and also human (imperfect and flawed)—just like us. 
  • No matter how tempted you are, don’t mess with your employees. Tell the truth, match your actions with your words, and match those words with the truth we all see in the world: no spin, no BS, no fancy justifications or revisionist history—just tell the truth.
  • Never, ever make the “adulterer’s guarantee.” This happens when you say to an employee, in effect, “I just lied to (someone else), but you can trust me because I’d never lie to you.” 
  • Don’t punish “good failures.” In other words, good failures occur when you play well but still lose. When they’re punished, you instill a fear of risk taking in your employees, and with that you stifle creativity and innovation. Instead, you should strive to create a digital-camera culture.
  • Don’t squelch the flow of bad news. Judgments or interpretations of good or bad, and that messengers are valued, not shot. Make it crystal clear to your employees that you expect the truth and nothing but the truth from them. And always, always hold up your end of that deal. Don’t ever shoot the messenger and don’t ever dole out some irrational consequence.
  • Constantly tap into your fairness conscience. If you treat employees fairly, and you do so consistently, you will set a pattern of behavior for the entire organization. This sense of fairness, critical to the creation of a safe environment, can be reinforced not only by complimenting fair practices but also by privately speaking to—or, if necessary, censuring—subordinates who behave unfairly to others in the organization.
  • Don’t take shortcuts. Every organization wants to succeed. That’s why, inevitably, there is a constant pressure to let the end justify the means. This pressure becomes especially acute when either victory or failure is in immediate sight. That’s when the usual ethical and moral constraints are sometimes abandoned—always for good reasons, and always “just this once”—in the name of expediency.
  • Separate the bad apples from the apples that just need a little direction. The cost of untruths to an organization can be huge in terms of time, money, trust, and reputation. As a leader, you have to recognize that you are not going to be able to fix a thief, a pathological liar, or a professional con artist—all of them must go, immediately.

A working environment of trust is a place where teams stay focused, give their utmost effort, and in the end do their best work. It’s a place where we can trust ourselves, trust others, trust our surroundings, or—best of all—trust all three.

Related Resources:

Ethics in the Real World

Did you know—March Is National Ethics Awareness Month

Ethics Awareness Month: ICMA Code Drives Ethical Local Government Cultures

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