3 Key Ways to Build Trust as a Leader

Trust. It’s one of those things that we all instinctively know is one of, if not the most important thing in a relationship. If you don’t have Trust with someone you don’t have a connection. And what you do to build trust has far greater impact than anything you say.  

You can say you want to support someone, that you value their ideas and input, that wellbeing is your priority, that you’ll keep a commitment or deliver results. Unless you demonstrate this with validating behaviour your words will not build trust. They will likely do the reverse and destroy it.  

In the workplace the pandemic has put trust to the test with managers dealing with their teams working out of their sight and at home. And with trust in Governments across the world at an all-time low, people are looking to their organisations more than ever before to be places they can trust.  

The research is overwhelming when it comes to the correlation between trust and performance. Organisations with a culture of high trust outperform those with low trust by a big margin. In his extensive study into organisational trust, neuroeconomist and author of ‘The Trust Factor’, Paul Zak found that people at high trust companies reported: 

  • 74% less stress 
  • 106% more energy  
  • 50% higher productivity  
  • 13% fewer sick days 
  • 76% more engagement  
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives 
  • 40% less burnout  

The Edelman Trust Barometer also points to high trust organisations experiencing greater risk-taking, more innovation, and higher performance. 

On the flipside, when you don’t have trust it can lead to disengagement, suspicion and ultimately underperformance. It also impacts on our communication. In a high trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing to someone, and they will still understand your meaning. In a low trust relationship whatever you say is open to misinterpretation in the mind of the other person.  

So if we know trust is vital to achieving great results and building relationships, what do we need to do to build it? Here are 3 things you can do. 

1.  Start with yourself 

I often hear leaders saying that the people in their team ‘have to earn my trust.’ This puts all the responsibility on the other person to do the work, whilst they simply decide whether they deserve their trust or not.  Unless the focus is purely on the completion of a task and a transactional relationship is all you want, then this doesn’t work. Trust that gets the kind of results that Zak found requires vulnerability and emotional responses that create safety, supports others to grow and provides the space for them to explore.  

As a leader it isn’t about you, it’s about empowering others and creating the conditions for people to be their best. The more trust you build, the more you’re able to do this.  

In his book ‘The Speed of Trust’ Stephen Covey says the job of a leader is to go first and extend trust. It’s not blind trust without expectations and accountability, but a ‘smart trust’ with clear expectations and accountability built in.   

Author and researcher Jim Collins says he learnt from his long time mentor Bill Lazier that you always need to start with trust. If you trust someone from the outset, they are more likely to become trustworthy because you trust them. How do you deal with the fact people aren’t always trustworthy? Collins says as long as you don’t open yourself up to catastrophic loss, it comes back to what you would rather live with. The upside of mistrust is preventing yourself from having a poor experience, the downside is that if you don’t trust them you may lose them.  

When it comes to Trust we need look at ourselves and our own relationship with self-trust. If we can’t trust ourselves, we are going to have a hard time trusting others. This means taking stock of where you are not only in your relationship with others, but yourself. When it comes to your own needs, are you aware of what they are and do you attend to them? Do you know your values and live by them? Are you being honest about what you’d love to do, or are you ignoring what excites you? When we hide things from ourselves we struggle to be authentic, which will be noticed by other people and make it harder for them to trust us.    

And If you don’t trust yourself, why should anyone else trust you? 

2.  Give clear direction, then get out of the way 

Through his research and experiments, Zak found that you build trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through and getting out of their way. This doesn’t mean going easy or expecting less from people. Those organisations who had high trust held people accountable, what they didn’t do was micromanage them. 

Our own research with followers of leaders aligns with Zak’s research as it highlights the need to feel trusted and supported, not micromanaged Gallup defines today’s micromanager as being: 

someone who wants it done exactly their way but provides little context, support, help or advice. 

In today’s world of remote working, it’s easier than ever for a manager to drop in and out of an email chain, Teams call or Whatsapp and interject without a full understanding of what’s happening.  

Micromanaging is not always a case of a manager being overly involved. What you often see is delegation with little context or information and a lack of clarity on what’s expected. This can lead to confusion, wasted time, and a dent in confidence and trust not just in the manager, but the individual themselves. 

What’s particularly ironic about micromanagement is that most leaders often say they have too much to do and not enough time. As one problem or request after another lands on them during the day, they end up doing the work and not managing it.  They become the super hero stepping into help do the work or solvthe problem rather than helping other people to solve it for themselves. Yet this creates dependency and disengagement, stunts the intelligence of the individuals around them and ultimately erodes trust.  It also leaves them, the leader, frustrated and wondering why people keep letting them down and aren’t more productive. 

According to Zak’s research when leaders ask others for help they stimulate the production of the feel good hormone oxytocin in others, which in turn increases trust and cooperation. People are at their best when they are in charge and hold accountability for their work and being trusted to figure things once they are trained is a big motivator for peopleIn a LinkedIn survey nearly half of all employees said they would give up a 20% pay rise to have more control over how they work. 

In her book ‘Multipliers’ Liz Wiseman talks about the approach of multipliers, who multiple the talent of those around them, and diminishers, who shut it down. Diminishers don’t trust that people will be able to figure it out and deliver without them. It’s these assumptions that end up breeding dependency because they are never given full ownership. Unfortunately, in the end, these assumptions end up playing out because people become disabled and dependent on the Diminisher for answers and approval. 

In contrast a Multiplier gives people the investment and ownership they need independently. They define ownership, invest resources and hold people accountable.  

In return they get people who take the initiativeanticipate challenges and are focused on achieving results. 

A couple of questions to start asking your team are:  

  • “What am I currently doing that I should have you take more responsibility or completely take ownership of?  
  • What am I involved in that you would like to contribute your strengths to?   

One way to give more accountability is to let them know they are in charge. Wiseman suggests identifying a project to transfer and giving them a majority vote to make it concrete. For example, tell them they have 51% of the vote and 100% of the accountability. Wiseman stresses it’s important to be clear with them that they are in charge and get to make the final decision. Although you can weigh in, they will still make the call and you are clear that you expect them to be the one to move things forward.  

3.  Focus on your behaviours 

In her extensive research Brown found  seven elements that emerged from the data as useful both in trusting others and trusting ourselves. The elements point to specific behaviours  what we need to DO to be able to build trust.  She uses the acronym BRAVING as a framework. 

Boundaries: ‘You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.’  

Do you clearly communicate your boundaries and give feedback when they aren’t respected? Do you respect other people’s boundaries? Are you considerate of their needs and how it can be dealt with if their preferences can’t be met? As the leader, are you role modelling and setting appropriate boundaries? 

Reliability: ‘You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.’ 

Do you do what you say you’re going to? Are you clear with others on what you expect and why? Do you ask for help when you need it? Do you role model well-being and take time out to recharge? Do you make sure you figure out how it will get done before saying yes to requests on behalf of other people?  Are you clear about your own limitations? Do you make sure you don’t take on too much? Do you over promise to avoid confrontation?  

AccountabilityYou own your mistakes, apologise and make amends. 

Do you allow people to make mistakes? Do you help people build on their mistakes and ideas? Are you comfortable with owning your mistakes? Do you admit when you make a mistake and apologise for it? Or do you get defensive? Do you listen to the positive intent behind other people’s actions when they make a mistake? Do you listen to your own?  

Vault: ‘You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share.’ 

Do you ‘walk to the talk’ and not get involved in office gossip? Do you act as a vault for your direct reports and others? Are you respectful of your own and other people’s stories? Do you share information with other people to try and build a connection, even though it’s not yours to share? Do you keep things in your relationships private? 

Integrity:You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.  

Do you give others the time and space to do good quality work? Do you practice your values? Do you help people to maintain their integrity with clients, other departments, team members? Do you allow others to get the work done without jumping in?  

Nonjudgment:I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment. We can ask each other for help without judgment.  

When you notice someone not doing their best work or being less productive than normal, do you make a quick judgment about them, or do you check in to find out what they need of if they have a personal situation they are finding their way through? Do you judge yourself, or anyone else, for asking for help when they need it? Do you listen without being distracted by your thoughtsexperiences and own perspectives? Do you ask questions to understand? 

Generosity: You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others. 

Do you check your assumptions before jumping to conclusions and questioning the motives of others? Do you pause and take a breath to consider the positive intent of the other person? Do you leave space for others to be accountableDo you extend generosity to others when they make a mistake? Do you extend it to yourself? 

As you review the BRAVING inventory, consider the areas you do well and where you could improve. Then take one area at a time to work onFor example, if you struggle with Boundaries, consider what you or the person involved is doing and what it is about the situation that’s making you feel stressed, anxious or resentful. Then ask yourself what you are going to do about the situation and what you have control over. 

When Brene Brown started looking into the behaviours that build trust, she found that it’s earned in the small moments, not big grand gestures or actions. What built trust was paying attention, listening and genuinely caring about building a connection.  

Building trust takes times because it’s based on a consistent pattern of action and you need to start somewhere. One of the most important things you can do is take the time to connect individually on a regular basis with all of your direct reports and make sure you’re not turning away in those small moments.  

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