I’ve written before about Frank Kretzschmar and my Leaders Circle events, and here’s something about the most recent one we hosted on the story-telling theme “Gaining and losing trust: moments of judgment, and their consequences”.

In preparing for the event I dove into the three books on trust by Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of the Seven Habits Covey).

His first one, The Speed of Trust, which appeared in 2006, spelt out the benefits of trust so well: where trust is present, everything speeds up and costs reduce.

Then, in his 2012 Smart Trust, he went further, suggesting that high trust also delivers prosperity, energy and joy.

And in his 2022 Trust and Inspire, all about high-trust leaders, he contrasted them to the untrusting command-and-control ones, seeing that trusting leaders attract and retain great talent, that’s bold, engaged and innovative.

Covey certainly doesn’t believe in blind trust or naïveté. Equally though, suspicious or cynical mindsets do not appeal to him.

President Reagan’s “trust but verify” seems a plausible middle road to travel, along with applying appropriate controls.

The World Values Survey, which asks citizens about their beliefs, opinions and activities, has consistently found that compared to many societies in Africa, Kenyans are less likely to trust people they don’t know, and also those they do know.

Further, domestic opinion polls regularly find that a majority of Kenyans lack trust in the country’s most important government institutions.

Having said that though, there are many trustworthy Kenyans – including in the public sector. And there are many trustworthy Kenyan organisations, whose people say “No” when they should.

We asked the participants to tell us how they act when they have lost trust in others – or others have in them – knowing that, as the African proverb tells us, “one lie spoils a thousand truths”.

We heard about the NCIC report on our elections, where they found the top roadblock to a peaceful one is a lack of trust between ethnic groups and in our institutions.

Just like now, where the government and the opposition clearly do not trust each other.

One participant lamented that “trusted people are a dying breed’. Another challenged him that even in government there are still many trustworthy people.

On the positive side, I referred to Equity Bank’s release that day of its Sustainability Report, titled Growing Together in Trust.

We heard about the increase in trust here thanks to digitisation, like with the iTax system, but concern was expressed that our media only report on what the bad guys are up to, unduly influencing us to reflect such cynical negativity.

“Life is so complicated that it is impossible not to be a hypocrite,” one stated. He put himself in the shoes of low- or no-income people who are forced to steal or seek bribes to keep going.

The leader of an insurance company confirmed that trust is everything there – not least in dealing with claims.

Yes, you must trust your clients enough, but you must apply checks and balances through conditions and controls.

And if you reject a claim you must be trusted that your reasons were solid. Basically, unless you trust one another there can be no relationships.

Then we heard that if you are trustworthy it takes a long time to reap the reward.

In conclusion, I suggested that we must gather a critical mass of trustworthy people and institutions as this is what will move the needle towards the positive end of the trust spectrum.

“Human progress isn’t possible without trust,” asserted one, while another talked about the presence of inner peace when we interact with someone we trust.

Much is being written about how the world will look after it has recovered from the coronavirus crisis. We have no idea about so many aspects of our social, economic and political futures, but one thing’s for sure: We won’t simply be going back to the way things were before the virus hit.

The sudden closing down of normal life has forced a dramatic transformation in how individuals, communities and nations conduct themselves. Inevitably, some have adapted much better than others. Not surprisingly, those who are suffering least are disproportionately the ones who were already ahead of the game, thanks to more visionary and agile leadership and more robust cultures. These are the ones who will emerge into the post-Corona era even better positioned.

Almost all of us have been forced to stay away from our normal workplaces and to work from home, relying exclusively on our laptops and phones to communicate. (I have been home-based for several years, so much less has changed for me.) We are using Zoom, Teams, GoToMeeting and other tools through which to hold meetings, deliver presentations, share lessons and so forth; we have rushed to engage more with online shopping and cashless payments; and we have disciplined ourselves to remain adequately structured and productive despite being exposed to far less intimate supervision. Good that employers aren’t fitting CCTV in the homes of their staff!

Which brings me to my point: organisations where there was already a culture of trust – where people have been trustworthy and hence trusted – are the ones for whom remote working is less of an issue. For the natural micromanagers, the ones who feel they need to stand eagle-eyed over their people, this is a really frustrating time as they imagine – rightly or wrongly – that just about everyone will be neglecting their work and enjoying the distractions of life at home.

Some people will indeed disappoint with their performance, abusing the normalisation of flexitime, but there will also be pleasant surprises, with new stars emerging. Look out for such people. Recognise and celebrate them.

Even as many leaders and frontline staff are busier than ever with their crisis management, for others who are less busy now is the time to place more emphasis on the learning they may have been too stretched to undertake before. This is the time to adopt a coaching approach to leadership, encouraging and reassuring one’s people, stretching and empowering them.

It is also the time to flatten the organisational pyramid. I very much related to a recent presentation on “The Future of Work – Lessons from the Pandemic” by the China Europe International Business School, in which they foresee the emergence of more empowered teams, with the ability to be autonomous and agile, and where hierarchies give way “wire-archies.” It is a time when “companies must restructure around people,” they conclude, in a culture where boldness and innovation are encouraged and mistakes expected and allowed.

Another article that caught my eye was by my friend Jayanth Murthy of the Kaizen Institute. He cautions leaders against being ostriches, birds that bury their heads in the sand when frightened and “remember they are big, but can’t fly.” The focus of ostrich-like leaders in times of crisis is purely on cost cutting, by reducing headcount, R&D budgets, marketing spend and suchlike. This can deliver quick results, he acknowledges, but inhibits post-crisis rebound.

Murthy contrasts the ostrich with the albatross. This bird “flies high, but with minimal effort.” It focuses on cutting waste, raising productivity and maximising impact (so very Kaizen). Albatross companies, he writes, expand their ability to find and fix problems, develop their people, improve processes and seek new opportunities to find and fix waste, broken processes and leakages. They get closer to their partners, and build long-lasting relationships with their own team members, customers, within the trade and with suppliers.

So what is the level of trust in your organisation? How do you make a virtue out of the necessity of our present predicament by challenging those around you to be more responsible and reliable, more collaborative and supportive, and of higher integrity?

Be sufficiently optimistic. Be bold. While of course keeping a tight grip on controls and on performance management. You may be pleasantly surprised.