Building Trust Through Communication

by Dan Hutson on June 23, 2009

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photo by hbp_pix

Trust is in short supply these days. Corporate bad behavior is a huge part of the problem, but so is lousy communication.

The financial industry deliberately confuses and misleads us with “disclosures” that run 20 pages long and require a law degree to understand. Big Pharma TV commercials claim that their products will cure what ails us while reeling off a long list of “possible side effects” that make me think I’ll just stick with the disease, thanks very much. And failing automakers like General Motors think they can still blow smoke up our tailpipes. No wonder there’s so little trust in corporate America.

Listen carefully. I’m about to reveal one of communication’s worst-kept secrets.

Here it is: Communication isn’t about sharing your news and information. It’s about building trust. Here’s how you do it.

Be continuous and relentless. Communication is a process, not a one-time announcement. You need to communicate frequently. You need to say, say it again and then restate it because people either miss it the first five times or they’re just not paying attention. Use different media and methods because we’re all different. You may like to read it, I may like to hear it, someone else may like to watch it.

Be visible. Maybe you do a great job of keeping donors up to speed on what’s going on. What about your employees? What about the people you serve? Make sure you’re communicating equally well with all stakeholder groups. You need everyone’s commitment and understanding to be successful.

Share what you know when you know it. There’s no better way to damage your credibility than to share the news after everyone already knows what’s going on. Don’t leave the communication of important news and information to informal channels. You may be tempted to craft your message perfectly and tie it up in a bow, but you frequently don’t have the time to do that. Better to be a little rough around the edges but timely and reliable.

Explain the why as well as the what. All stakeholders need the big picture. Understanding how what’s being done contributes to the success of your mission is essential. Don’t assume “everyone knows” why you’ve taken a step. They frequently don’t. Worse, they may make their own assumptions that are only distantly related to the truth.

Listen. Ever notice how a phone has both a thing you talk into AND a thing you listen through? You’re supposed to use both. Knowing what’s on the minds of stakeholders helps you craft more effective communication. Yes, you have a message you want to get out there. But if no one’s interested in that message, you have a problem. Listening helps you figure out what the message should be.

Be honest and expect honesty in return. I’ve always found that coming from a place of integrity encourages greater trust and a richer dialogue. It doesn’t necessarily mean complete transparency; there is information that can’t be shared with everyone. But letting people know that, and why, is better than lying or misleading stakeholders. Candor and clarity on your part encourage a greater openness on the part of others. Well, most others … being open with stupid or evil people isn’t going to accomplish anything. Go ahead and try it anyway.

Be respectful. No matter how good your communication is, some will not agree with your decisions. Disagreement isn’t the same as distrust. Differences of opinion are healthy and can lead to better outcomes. The important thing is to respect the opinions of others when they’re sincere. Insincerity can kiss my you-know-what.

Enable others to do their jobs through your communication. It never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t get this: Effective communication provides people with what they need to do their jobs. It’s not just about getting the news out or making sure everyone’s in the loop. Being well-informed leads to better decision making.

Be real. “Authenticity” is a word being tossed around a lot these days, especially with respect to social media. It applies to all forms of communication. People don’t engage in dialogue with organizations or corporations; they talk to other people. Maybe that’s one reason corporate blogs are deemed untrustworthy. Be a human being in your communication. If someone feels like they’re dealing with an organization and not a person when they deal with you, then you’ve got a problem.

Take responsibility for your message. Sometimes this means owning a mistake. Better to make it, own it and move on than to waste time figuring out how to cover it up, deflect criticism or distract attention.

One final thought. Your actions are worth a thousand emails. If there’s a disconnect between what you’re saying and what you’re doing, then all the communication in the world won’t save you. Make the effort to follow this advice and you’ll be better off. You can trust me on this.