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Leadership and trust: presumed innocent (Part I)

“Trust until you have a reason not to.”

Wooden gavelPresumption of innocence is a fundamental right in most civilized countries. In criminal trials, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution which is required to meet a threshold of presenting evidence to convince beyond a reasonable doubt. So indoctrinated are we to that concept that a presumption of guilt is regarded as immoral. To that end, business practices, such as pre-employment drug testing, are frequently the target of rights activists who believe such practices violate the principle by requiring job candidates to prove themselves innocent.

Beyond law and order, the presumption of innocence has implications in all aspects of our lives. From parenting to education to business to politics, and everything in between, we are continuously challenged to assume the best in others and suffer the disappointment and consequences when our trust turns out to have been misplaced.

In the business world, leaders are encouraged to build a culture of trust. Evidence of this consistent message to leaders was revealed through a casual Google search on the words ‘trust’ and ‘leadership’ that yielded over 350 million hits. Nearly all of the volumes of books, articles, classes and speeches on the subject extol the virtues of trust, remind leaders that employee surveys reveal a deficit of trust, and encourage leaders to trust more and assume the best. After all, presuming innocence is not only an essential moral foundation of a civilized society, it is also sensible business practice.

Or is it?

Lying, cheating, stealing

In surveys, 82 percent of young people admit to lying to a parent about something significant, 60 percent admit to cheating on a test and 28 percent admit to stealing from a store. 

Ninety-eight percent of these same survey respondents believe that honesty and trust are essential in personal relationships, 92 percent report being satisfied with their own ethics and character and 74 percent say they are better than most people they know at doing what is right.

The numbers tell an interesting story. The same population who describes themselves as ethical also admitted to lying, cheating and stealing…on the same survey.

What can be gleaned from these contradictions?  Apparently the behaviors of lying, cheating and stealing that the survey respondents admitted to have been justified in their own minds, extending to themselves the presumption of innocence.

It’s a disturbing thought that the young people who confessed to these ethical breaches today are the parents, educators, colleagues, employees, leaders, elected officials and business owners of tomorrow.

The Leadership Dilemma

It is difficult to find a leader at any level that doesn’t readily agree about the importance of honesty and trust. However, the same leaders, like the young people surveyed, frequently fall short when called upon to translate the virtue they embrace into action.

There is little we can do, or indeed little anyone would want to do, about the fundamental right we cherish of the presumption of innocence. To embrace a philosophy that presumes guilt would be tantamount to turning back the clock on civilization.

For nearly everyone, the questions are troubling and the actions called for unclear. For leaders charged with building a culture of trust in organizations, the complexity of nurturing an ethical environment can be overwhelming.

Is there a solution? Can a trusting nature and a healthy dose of skepticism co-exist in organizations? Can a culture of trust be fostered at the same time as a culture that challenges the choices people make?

Stay tuned for the next blog on this subject where five leadership strategies are explored to address this challenge.  In the meantime, use the Comment section of this blog to share leadership strategies you have found effective.

- Ro Crosbie is president of Tero International, a premier interpersonal skills and corporate training company.

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Website: www.tero.com

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