What Forensic Investigators Can Teach Business Leaders About Building Trust During a Crisis

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According to Hollywood, the most difficult part of an investigation is getting the suspect to confess. In real life, a certified forensic interviewer will tell you the hardest part is really building the trust necessary to encourage witnesses and victims to truthfully share their experiences.

Certified forensic interviewers (CFIs) are investigators who have proven their expertise by achieving the highest available designation in their field. As most of these investigators have experienced time and time again, many witnesses and victims feel enormous amounts of stress during interviews. They are worried they could be unfairly judged by their interviewer or face consequences if the suspect learns what they shared.

Employees often behave similarly during times of crisis. When doubt creeps in, employees tend to close ranks, raise their defenses, reduce the number of people they trust, and focus on protecting themselves.

In a 2016 Gallup survey, only 34 percent of employees considered themselves to be fully engaged at work. This can be interpreted to mean that, when a crisis arises, 67 percent of your employees are not prepared to commit themselves to the shared sacrifice required to resolve the crisis. Worse still, disengagement is only likely to increase as a crisis drags on.

Like CFIs in the middle of a difficult investigation, business leaders navigating a crisis have to focus on building employee trust if they hope to reach a resolution. Luckily for business leaders, the tactics and strategies CFIs use in the interview room directly apply to resolving crisis situations.

Embrace the Information You Do Have

Both leaders navigating crisis situations and CFIs must embrace the fact that they will almost never have all of the information they need to create foolproof strategies and find perfect solutions. By the time a leader or CFI arrives on the scene, the situation may already be wildly screwed up and out of their control. Most of the people they speak with will have more motivation to distrust them than to trust them.

Achieving success in these scenarios requires leaders to leverage what little information they do have. One approach leaders can take is to share with employees any facts they already know. This approach becomes more effective when leaders are able to reference independent experts who can corroborate their information. An equally effective approach is for leaders to admit they don’t have all the necessary information. Then, they can outline the process they are implementing to acquire what they are missing, the benchmarks they are using to validate new information, and the potential actions they will take once they have acquired new intelligence. Focusing on the process provides employees with specific information they can rely on moving forward.

Intentionally Build Trust

Employees can easily convince themselves that leaders only care about the company, in the same way that interview subjects can easily convince themselves that investigators only care about closing the case. Hence, employees and interview subjects alike tend not to be forthcoming with information they may have.

Leaders must create processes that aim to intentionally build incremental trust with employees. Toward that end, unsolicited and unexpected actions often create the biggest returns. Little gestures — such as choosing convenient times to talk, starting every conversation by asking employees about their family, answering concerns they brought up during previous conversations, and voluntarily sharing information — can go a long way in showing employees that you really do care about them. This, in turn, will encourage more trust.

Be Authentic

Both CFIs and leaders in crisis must communicate with authenticity, demonstrate vulnerability, and show compassion.

When people are under stress they may speak or act in ways they normally wouldn’t. Leaders and interviewers must both avoid taking adversarial statements, questions, and actions personally. Instead, remain aware of how the context of the situation drives these behaviors and adapt your approach to identify new ways to enhance rapport with frustrated employees.

It is important leaders don’t focus too heavily on how the crisis is affecting them personally. It is also important to refrain from using the phrase “I understand.” Leaders often use these approaches in an attempt to build rapport without realizing it has the opposite effect, and employees may view these gestures as insincere.

A more productive approach is to listen without interrupting while employees vent their frustrations. Once the employee finishes speaking, you should thank them, share what you believe the core issues are, explain how you are implementing processes to address these core issues, and commit to following up in the near future. Following up after the conversation is the best way for leaders to provide employees with tangible evidence that they were really listening.

Research conducted by Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, found that high-trust organizations experience 74 percent less stress and 76 percent more engagement on average. What better time to improve the level of trust in your organization than during a crisis?

It’s not about forcing that trust — it’s about setting aside our own fears and beliefs to accurately consider employees perspectives and take actions that allow our employees to choose to trust us.

Michael Reddington, CFI, is president of InQuasive, Inc. 

By Michael Reddington