The myth of trust

By Mark Rogers | 14 May 2014
  • Mark Rogers

During my first weeks in Birmingham, I have been talking with colleagues about the importance I place on promoting and embedding the values of empathy, respect and trust.

Seeing things from the other person's perspective seems particularly important to me given that to work in local government requires, I believe, a commitment to serve the needs and wishes of the public first and foremost.

And if we are genuinely committed to walking (metaphorically, I suggest) in other people's shoes - and to succeed in doing so - then I have confidence that the respect and trust upon which councils rely for their mandate to serve will be enhanced.

Of course, these words trip easily off the tongue. To be taken seriously, we must truly live these values everyday in all that we do. So, I have also been discussing what needs to be done to take the lofty rhetoric to which my ramblings can so easily succumb and turn them into reality. And, time and again, there are three messages I hear.

Firstly, ensure a focus on keeping promises. There's nothing so damaging as making a commitment and then reneging on it. Whether it's not calling someone back when you said you would; telling someone 'yes' when you actually meant 'no'; or letting bad behaviour go unchecked when you said you'd deal with it.

All of these are breaches of good faith (and good practice) that, if allowed to become systemic, make for a thoroughly dysfunctional organisation and justify colleagues in a scepticism that things will ever get better.

Secondly, give people practical support and development for the hard stuff. Not everyone gets up in the morning and finds it easy to face - let alone look forward - to a day of 'courageous conversations'. Colleagues look for, and should expect, advice and training to tackle difficult issues and difficult people.

And a balance is also needed, so it is equally important to assist those who are, or appear to be, problematic to understand how they are viewed and what they might do about it themselves. Positive behaviours rely principally on reciprocity, not finger wagging.

And thirdly, a cliche I know, but leaders truly need to lead by example. I can't remember how many times I have recounted to anyone who will listen what I now refer to as my 'Sam Gilbert Moment', but here it is again.

As a rookie chief executive, I deployed a raft of (occasionally funny I like to think) quips and anecdotes about accountants that were trotted out simply to entertain (I was clearly desperate for approbation).

However, the real consequence of my stand up routine was to give an unintended message that this group of staff weren't really valued - otherwise why did I keep making jokes about them. So, what leaders do really, really matters. All the great words and profoundest wisdom will otherwise founder on the rocks of hypocrisy.

So, in summary, my messages are simple. I want to work with good people who are fully prepared and able to be supportive and constructively challenging to each other. With this in hand we can concentrate on the main task of making a positive difference to the lives of the citizens of our great City.

Not much to ask for really.

Mark Rogers is chief executive of Birmingham City Council and president of SOLACE

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