Successful Leaders Build Trust - An Interview with Matt Paknis


As written before on the SHRM blog, here and here, I believe trust is a critical component of successful teams and organizations. Matt Paknis has written a great new book, “Successful Leaders Aren’t Bullies” and I wanted to get his perspective on the importance of trust – in organizations, on teams, and in life.

Matt Paknis is a senior management consultant with six years of college football coaching and ten years of playing experience through five championship seasons whose focus is on lessening bullying in the workplace. He was a former assistant coach at Penn State under Joe Paterno and has spoken publicly about being abused as a child. Matt transcended childhood bullying and the death of his mother with teamwork and leadership. He has dedicated over twenty-five years of consulting to helping global clients embrace healthy management practices to thrive.  His latest book is Successful Leaders Aren't Bullies: How to Stop Abuse at Work and Build Exceptional Organizations.

Thanks for joining Matt! Could you share a short overview of your book?

Thank you for this opportunity, Ross.  Successful Leaders Aren’t Bullies presents actual bullying cases I’ve experienced and addressed in the workplace with clients over the past twenty-six years. It empowers good leaders to choose leadership and to understand the benefits of leading with healthy behaviors and to intervene and to stop bullying. It will inspire and mobilize bullied victims to overcome and to thrive by presenting examples of resilient and healthy individuals and organizations.

What do you think inspires people to follow a successful leader? 

As a college football coach and then as a manager, responsible for overseeing and influencing the daily actions and behaviors of up to sixty people, as a sports captain in high school and in college and even as the president of the “animal house” in college when we became the first fraternity to return to campus housing after losing this privilege, and then working around for the globe with leaders to help them inspire followership, a few best practices emerged.

It’s all about trust, the greatest interpersonal motivator.  Trust builds when a vulnerable person is protected from injury or harm.  Leaders also build trust when their actions align with promises and when their behaviors reflect constituent shared and expressed values and beliefs.   People are willing to listen and take action when they know a leader’s direction will keep them safe. The greatest leaders change attitudes and perspectives.  They open minds.  This requires people to suspend mental models and perceptions and to listen.  This requires great trust, most influenced by, in order of impact, what they see in, how they hear, and what they learn from a leader’s message.  People forget what leaders say or do, but they always remember how a leader makes them feel.  They remember stories and actions proving a leader displays what, according to Gallop, constituents in America want their leaders to be; honest, competent, inspiring, forward thinking, and fair minded.  If constituents trust a leader, they are willing to take risks.

I totally agree. However, building trust takes time – how do you inspire a team while you are building trust. Obviously, bullying is one way, but I suspect you have some ideas about alternatives…

Ownership and involvement.  The best leaders sell, rather than tell.  They delegate with constraints all decision making to people who have proven themselves to be trustworthy.  They develop everyone in the organization to this point of competence and confidence, so everyone learns to make the best urgent and important decisions.  If there’s an emergency, or when time is limited, a leader can decide and announce, or poll individuals and decide or poll the group and decide, but to increase ownership and involvement, it’s important for constituents to have skin in the game, to feel like they are being heard and what they have to say is valued and important.  Coming to consensus and delegating with constraints augments followership and action.

What can great leaders do to keep an open dialogue?

Address difficult and emotional issues constructively, rather than destructively.  The least offensive, and most direct, tool  used to share or clarify someone's raw emotion, or true feelings, is by reflecting (making an  observation as it's easier to agree on facts) like, "John, I notice you look away every time I pass you," and then guessing (or respectfully sharing one's opinion in the form of a question), like, "and I'm guessing my smile’s so bright it’s blinding," or, “It seems like you may be concerned about your upcoming deadline.”  To clarify, check in with the other person by asking, "is this true?"

In your book, you call out some of the shortcomings of HR departments when it comes to bullies, are there things HR professionals can do to help make leaders successful? 

I’ve worked in, and served, many human resources departments with exceptional people who care about employees, their rights, justice, and fair treatment. Rather than seeking the truth and protecting employees, many human resources departments are seen by individual contributors as a protector who only serves one side - management and the organization. 

To be effective in building exceptional organizations and helping successful leaders, human resources needs autonomy and a balanced perspective.  Management typically has the upper hand and all the power – usually at the expense of the individual contributor.  To show I/C’s they can trust an organization, HR needs to outline and publicize, in the employee handbook or as part of  company policy, specific, appropriate, behaviors all workers can expect from management.  HR professionals can play a huge role, not just in eliminating poor leadership behaviors, but by helping to build trust in their organizations.

So, in summary, what are key things you would advise leaders to do as an alternative to bullying?

These three steps, 1. Making an observation, 2.  Respectfully sharing opinions as questions, and 3. Clarifying allows one to inquire and share difficult or awkward thoughts in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner.

The greatest distance between two people is misunderstanding.   Great leaders use trust, empowerment, and addressing the truth to bridge this gap and inspire followership and build world class organizations.



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