The role of coaching in building a culture of trust

I remember when I heard for the first time about the catastrophic event at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I was a child, trying to understand the connection between the explosion somewhere far away in the Soviet Union, and my parents’ debate about whether my elder sisters should go on an upcoming school trip. I only later understood my parents worry and the impact this accident had on the planet and human lives.

Now, many years later, the story and its meaning has been brought back to my life through the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. No one can ever be prepared to see the stressful scenes of death caused by radiation in this horrific tragedy, but what I find most profoundly tragic in this story is the harsh truth about human nature. Individuals are very often willing to cover up and lie and refuse to take responsibility despite knowing that by doing so, lives could be saved. In many circumstances, we choose to protect and put ourselves first rather than expose ourselves.

I recount this story because there are so many lessons to be learned from it. Not only lessons that come from the acts of heroic individuals, but also, and perhaps more importantly, from the leaders who flat-out failed. The Chernobyl miniseries provides us with both.

Is Chernobyl something that happened once, somewhere far away, and will never happen again? Or is it a story that continues to be told today only with a different plot and different actors?

Unfortunately, today as in 1986 when catastrophic leadership decisions were made, we are often pressured by a culture that supports the belief that ‘what must be done, must be done’ whatever the price.  Rather than challenging the status quo, we are driven by the fear of ‘rocking the boat’, believing that to do so would be a dangerous move. Even if the danger is just perceived, it is equally powerful and affects our judgment and ability to be effective leaders.

The question to consider is how many leaders today rely on a culture of fear they consciously create? I'm sure we've all met them, in our career and in life. We meet and recognize them all too often. So, when we recognize them, the question we should ask is how much do we feed their power, even by deciding to mind our own business or not ‘rock the boat’? If we mind our own business and decide to avoid conflict and not take a stand because we don’t feel directly endangered, what are the consequences? Are we complicit in perpetuating this fear culture? By avoiding taking a risk and standing up to this type of leadership, we may be jeopardizing more than we can imagine.

Fortunately, most of us do not manage a nuclear power plant, but the lessons from this story are profound and applicable in today’s volatile world. To support a culture of toxicity, based in fear and manipulation will only lead to mistrust and ineffective leadership.  One of the lessons learned from Chernobyl is that if we aren’t creating a culture of trust and transparency during stable times, people won’t act with trust and transparency when things get tough.

Coaching can play a significant role in building the necessary trust and integrity in the workplace.  While trust is the foundation for productive relationships and high-performing teams, it’s not something that can be achieved overnight or solely with putting HR policies in place. What we do every day to strengthen the culture of trust, especially when it comes to creating an open coaching culture, makes a difference.  

Here are three simple tips for leaders, aimed at building trust and integrity through a coaching culture:

Coach to establish a new mindset that supports change
People will generally resist change if they fear failure. Furthermore, leaders will sometimes avoid responsibilities and blame others if things are not going well. The combination of these responses can lead to a cycle that does not support leaders or employees through change.  Leaders can break this cycle and build trust by speaking about how change can be embraced, model behaviors that support desired risk-taking and use coaching to unlock individual creativity and potential.  Through this supportive process, employees will feel more secure and confident as they move through the change or disruption.

Ask thoughtful questions and stay curious
I used to think that a coach’s role was to ask that ‘magical question’. However, what I have found to be much more effective is to use reflective enquiry. By staying curious and asking thoughtful questions, people are more likely to engage with one another. Then, by carefully listening to their responses, you will more deeply connect with the person you are speaking with. This builds trust, the foundation of strong lasting relationships and a trusting culture.

Hear with empathy and have your team’s back
Trust is built when others experience a time you have their back. How you respond when the project is likely to fail and how you demonstrate your coaching skills during high-pressure times is the catalyst for building trust. Empathy is key to gaining trust and reducing resistance to change.

Trust isn’t built in a day, nor is it easily done. There is no silver bullet. However, every leader can become motivated to model positive behaviors that enhance the culture of integrity by practicing coaching skills that support diverse stakeholders and promote shared goals and values. Integrating these 3 key tips for leaders using coaching skills may initially be difficult and take conscious effort, but the outcome may be as powerful as avoiding catastrophic events like that of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.