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Leading in a "Trust Recession"

Jan 27, 2022

by co-authors, John Kratz and Mike Bosworth

According to a recent McKinsey & Company article, more than 19 million US workers have quit their jobs since April 21, 2021.

Organizational leaders are struggling to address the problem. 

McKinsey & Company surveyed 250 employer talent acquisition managers and 5,744 employees working in large and midsize companies in Australia, Canada, Singapore, and the United Kingdom to gather further insight.

One of the three top factors surveyed employees reported as reasons for leaving their current positions was that they didn’t feel valued by their manager. (52 percent)

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, discusses several issues relating to employee retention in a recent Harvard Business Review article including flexible work, the Metaverse, and the power of empathy. In the article transcript, he communicates that one of the best epiphanies he had while rising the ranks at Microsoft was that “nobody quits companies, they quit managers.”

Today’s ‘great attrition’ is for real and may worsen before it improves. 

Yet it represents a significant opportunity for open-minded managers who want to grow. 

In our consulting with companies of all sizes, when we observe leaders struggling, it is typically because these managers are blind to the emotional responses their behavior is causing in their people.

Managers can seize the opportunity to take a step back, listen, and learn why their people are leaving. If you can understand why they are leaving, you can use this knowledge to attract people who will follow you as a leader.  

Delusions of Listening Competence

“Most corporate leaders overestimate their listening skills. A 2015 survey conducted by Accenture that included more than 3600 professionals from thirty countries found that 96 percent of respondents thought they were good listeners. Anyone who has spent a day in an office knows this isn’t true.”

– Marissa King, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, Author of Social Chemistry - Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection

It is estimated that less than 2 percent of the population have participated in organized listening training. Of that 2 percent, the vast majority have been trained on active listening only, which focuses on content, ignoring emotions and feelings

They lack a listening framework for “emotional detection” or empathy.

Connected listening teaches leaders to build connections and trust with their direct reports by reflecting BOTH content and feelings. 

When Leading, Your Authority Can Become Your Enemy

Having authority may give you a title, but it’s trust that makes you a leader. A leader is only a leader when others choose to follow. We believe one of the key reasons employees “quit managers” is the misuse of authority.

In the corporate world, many leaders use authority to get people to do what they want them to do because it is much easier to tell people what you want them to do than to take the time and effort to connect with them emotionally. 

When leaders lack the skills for influencing and inspiring their team, they tend to overplay their authority card. Authority is a blunt instrument, and its overuse erodes trust and connection.

It takes much more time and emotional energy to listen to them, earn their trust, use your stories to guide and inspire them, and influence them to volunteer to follow you. It takes effort to invest in a relationship with them, rather than telling them what to do. Most adults and teenagers we know do not like being told what they ‘need to do.’

A negative ‘trust spiral’ is hard to reverse once begun.

Command and Control Culture

Why do many corporate managers misuse their authority to influence their people to choose new thoughts and behaviors? 

Our observation is that many operate from a ‘command and control’ paradigm. 

They interpret power as something imposed on others from the top down. 

Reasons for many include their time in the military, growing up with overcontrolling parents, and more recently in the news, playing for NFL head coaches.

Experience in the military has ‘tainted’ the concept of leadership for many Americans.

They have no real clue how to influence their subordinates because, in the military, they were not attempting to connect, inspire and influence. They just gave orders, and their subordinates followed them. Their comfortable use of authority within the military’s hierarchical ‘command and control’ environment became a habit – they assumed people would do what they told them to do in the corporate world. 

Lose the Room, Lose Your Influence

People only choose to follow people they trust.

Over the years, we have witnessed many didactic managers finding out too late that they had lost the room and subsequently lost their jobs. 

Think about meetings you have attended where it is clear to you that the person at the head of the table has lost the room. 

When we observe managers who have lost their rooms, our usual conclusion is they were oblivious to the emotional reactions of the people in the room. 

People must grant a leader their cooperation for any idea to work. 

They have to volunteer to follow. 

Getting People to Volunteer to Follow You

It pains us to say this, but there are many things most ‘command and control’ oriented executives could learn about inspirational leadership from politicians. 

Many politicians from both sides are much better at getting people to volunteer to follow them than most business leaders. However, in too many cases, their lust for power and lack of morality eventually causes many followers to lose trust in them.

It does beg the question, though, “why are politicians so much better at getting ‘volunteer’ followers than corporate managers?” First, politicians have to be good at influence because they have no authority over the voting of their constituents. Most political “spin doctors” understand the importance of controlling the story narrative – how the power of a story can be used to influence. 

Political operatives know how to craft and tell stories that express empathy and vulnerability.

Politicians use stories to inspire, influence, and motivate people to choose new thoughts and behaviors. Yes, many of them have morality issues, but many corporate executives and managers have inspiration and connection issues, leading to trust issues.

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Inspirational Leaders Craft and Tell Stories

“The art of story is something that great leaders understand and encourage in their people. They know that being able to construct a narrative draws people in and helps them relate to you and your message.”

-Rishad Tobaccowala - Author of Restoring the Soul of Business - staying HUMAN in the age of data

The best inspirational leaders we know are good at crafting and telling stories. Stories that inspire, stories that influence, stories that motivate people to choose new thoughts and behaviors.

You can’t make people change, but you can create a culture where they choose to.

Inspirational leaders understand how telling a good story can lead people to emotional conclusions. 

If you decide to transform from a didactic manager to an inspirational leader, your first task is to build and practice your inventory of ORAL leadership stories.

Here are a few stories you can begin building and practicing today:

  •     ‘How I Got Here’ story
  •     ‘Why I Joined this Company story
  •    ‘How Our Offering Empowers our Customers’ stories
  •  ‘Mission/Vision/Values’ story(s) for your organization
  •  ‘Post-Merger/Acquisition’ story

Effective stories possess certain key elements. They must be verbally expressed in a way that your potential audience, team member, or client identifies with the hero of that story and experiences the EMOTION of the story arc through that character.

We recommend using a company standard storyboard/story component methodology when building your stories. This will allow your organization to institutionalize best practices. First, craft them to be deliverable in 60 seconds or less. Then, if your listeners are participating, you can extend them.

Many of our workshop participants struggle with the 60-second objective. When we inform them that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lasted two minutes and two seconds, they begin to believe in brevity.

We use the following storyboard for story building, storytelling, and connected listening.


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Notice that each story element in the story arc has a different color and a reminder to explore the emotional state, whether telling or tending a story. 

Fine Tuning Your Leadership Stories

Do not just build and practice these stories alone! Instead, make use of a trusted peer, subordinate or expert coach to listen to you and give you feedback on how they emotionally resonated with your story.

As you fine-tune your leadership stories, your power and influence will start ramping up noticeably. A good story informs but a GREAT story change how we feel, think, and what we choose to do.

Your entire organization will notice your improved ability to lead at scale.

  • Here is a 14-minute TEDtalk by leadership consultant Karen Eber on how the best leaders earn trust and shape organizational culture through the power of storytelling and creating empathy.

A Story of Vulnerability and Emotional Reciprocity™

A Xerox mentor of Mike’s, Bob Populorum, was his first influence in helping him appreciate the importance of seller vulnerability and the customer’s ‘buy cycle.’ Bob had majored in Psychology at Northwestern and liked to do psychology experiments on strangers. Bob had five children (he used to say, ‘one of each.’). Because he had five children, Bob frequently found himself in a room full of strangers, all supporting some function of one of his children’s schools. (Fundraisers, back-to-school nights, etc.)

Bob would wander among the other parents for the Phase One part of his experiment without introducing himself. He was just listening. He heard things like, “Mine got into Harvard,” “Mine is on a Lacrosse scholarship at Johns Hopkins,” and on and on. Bob said it was like they were having a contest to prove who had the most accomplished kids. After enough of that, Bob moved to Phase Two of his experiment – he would now walk up to people, extend his hand and introduce himself with the following: “My name is Bob, I have five children. The first four are doing great; two out of college in their first jobs, two still in college, but my #5 is breaking my heart.” He went on to say something like, “last Saturday, she got picked up for shoplifting, and I think I am going to have to send her to rehab.”

Guess what the parents then responded with (multiple times!): 

“Oh, we have one of those too. Just last week, I got another call from the principal about fighting.” After that, virtually every parent Bob started a conversation with responded the same way. 

They were willing to voluntarily share their problem children if Bob was human and vulnerable first. Bob’s experiments demonstrated the power of emotional reciprocity.

Vulnerability is how you humanize your story. If you want your people to trust you, you have to have the courage and wisdom to be vulnerable first. When you show vulnerability first, natural feelings of emotional reciprocity will cause your employee/customer/prospect/team member/superior/friend/family member to be vulnerable with you in return.    

Overnight, you can increase your connection and trust with every person you value having in your life by showing your vulnerability first. 

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Becoming a Story Seeker®

Real influence, trust, and connection emanate from listening. Before you can be a connected leader, you must first become a connected listener – what we call a ‘story seeker.’

In our opinion, the very best thing you can do for your new managers is to teach them to become connected listeners.

Teach them how to build connections and trust with their direct reports by empathic, connective listening, verbally reflecting both content and feelings.

As with many talented people, great connected listeners do it intuitively. To get better at something, the first step is to admit to yourself you are not very good at it. We developed a way to teach most people who are not good intuitive listeners to use a listening framework. A model for seeking and verbally reflecting the stories of their team members.

One final story. 

In a Story Seekers leadership workshop, the night two ‘homework’ assignment was to use the storyboard to tend the story of someone you love for 30 minutes. (We remind them not to share that they are doing a homework assignment.) Examples could be anywhere from “Tell me the story again of how you decided to leave your first husband” to “tell me about your day.” They are tasked with tending both the facts and emotions of each story element before they summarize and confirm, “Did I get You?”

The following morning, the vice president of Engineering for a manufacturing company shared his story-tending experience with his youngest daughter:

“I am the father of four daughters. The oldest three range from 18 to 23, and my youngest is 11. I went into her room after dinner, sat down, and asked her to “tell me what it’s like to be the youngest person in our family?” To make a long story short (call us if you want to hear the extended version), he vulnerably admitted to the group that he had never spent that long (45 minutes) one on one with that child. He had the whole room in tears.

Experiential Learning with Expert Coaching

How do managers grow and transform into inspirational and connected leaders?

Here are a few topics we cover in our Connected Leader workshops using experiential learning exercises with expert coaching. 

  •      The importance of vulnerability, authenticity, and integrity to build trust
  •      The power of emotional reciprocity
  •      The power of story for influencing and inspiring most human beings
  •      Figuring out what stories they need in their repertoire as leaders
  •     A framework for practicing empathic, connected listening

As consultants to business leaders, we have observed that many have a predominant leadership style – either connecting or inspiring. What if you could get good at both? Over the years, when we experienced both those talents in one human being, that human being eventually started their own company!

Transitioning Your Leadership Style

Authority is granted; leadership is earned. Leadership is a decision.

A Leader creates the conditions where people volunteer to follow. A Leader can help people see a new landscape. A Leader can help people see new opportunities and new options.

A Leader can help people choose new actions.

You can motivate people to do difficult things that need doing by:

  •     Subduing your primordial command and control urges and becoming a true leader!
  •     Transitioning from a didactic manager to a connected leader by connective listening.
  •     Transitioning from a didactic manager to an inspirational leader by storytelling

Everyone you know and care about will thank you!

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