The Leadership Notebook: Chapter 3 – Trust

Sept/Oct, 2011


Five key components of successful leadership were identified in the introductory article for this series. They include vision, trust, passion, commitment and communication.

We have discussed how important it is to create a vision for your organization and develop your strategy to support the realization of that vision over time. One of the most important aspects of leadership in carrying out the vision is to create an environment of mutual trust.

Consider that safety and security is one of our primary human needs. People need to feel some sense of safety and security, especially in the workplace. It is a place where most of us spend much of our daily lives. More importantly, if we feel insecure in our work environment, it has a direct impact on how safe and secure we can feel at home. Insecurity can be especially distracting, like being on high alert for a physical threat. Every action becomes secondary to protecting ourselves, and every decision has an element of protection built in.

Stress will surely accompany any situation with insecurity. Although many people can thrive under pressure, most employees do not perform well in a constantly stressful environment. A manageable level of stress and uncertainty however, can be motivating and drive us to peak performance. As leaders, we need to watch carefully and stretch our teams to reach that peak without creating unnecessary and non-productive stress. A culture of trust motivates employees and eliminates one major source of constant uncertainty.

Trust is a basic understanding of what we can expect from another person. It is a belief in a person’s statements, character, and especially actions or behaviors. Trust is a key element of leadership, because it enables followers to believe in the vision and make it their own.

Think of great leaders and how their followers must have trusted them completely. In extreme cases of leadership, followers will actually trust their leader enough to risk their own life for a cause. Just consider any political revolution or war. True, there is much to be gained or lost in these situations, but there are many good examples of individuals who have dedicated themselves, sometimes their entire lives, to a cause they believed in, or a leader they trusted.

In fact, it’s impossible to imagine anyone dedicating their life to someone they just don’t trust.

As leaders, how can we gain the trust of our followers? To answer, think about how we come to trust another person. You might say it’s a gut feeling, and that might be true in some cases. However, trust in the workplace is built up over time, and it will absolutely vary by individual. Some people are more skeptical than others by nature, and others have developed skepticism through bad experiences. As in other aspects of great leadership, establishing trust is accomplished by consistently delivering on promises or statements on a daily basis. Every daily interaction with your colleagues or staff is an opportunity to reinforce and build more trust.

Business leaders must be especially aware of their daily interactions, because, unfortunately, a general distrust of management still exists. This mistrust is based on a belief that there is a conflict between the well-being of employees and the well-being of the company (profitability). In reality, there’s a need for balance, and to provide an environment where both employees and the company can prosper together. Both need to feel success and achievement together, as well as disappointment and pain when things don’t work out as planned.

To develop the trust of colleagues and employees alike:

· Do what you say you will do. Nothing will deteriorate trust more than actions that are inconsistent with words. It’s therefore very important to be especially clear in communicating, so there is no ambiguity about what the actions will be. Then be tenacious about following through with honesty and integrity.

· Deliver on your promises. Okay, so you can’t deliver on everything, because there are always external pressures or unforeseen circumstances. Simply put – don’t over-promise. Create goals that have some stretch, but are attainable. Again, be consistent – if you deliver on a vast majority of important promises, you will likely earn some tolerance for the exception where unexpected obstacles do arise.

· Support your team. Be steadfast in your support of your team, and they will return your support. Take responsibility when things don’t work well and share success when they do. Nobody appreciates being “thrown under the bus” when things go awry, and most people resent when a leader takes all the credit for a team accomplishment.

· There should be no private agendas. Make your expectations clear, set real objectives and be sure your team is working toward attaining a REAL goal. Hidden agendas are dishonest and will eventually become visible. The damage can be significant and often irreversible.

· Trust is mutual; build trust by demonstrating that you trust your team to make decisions or take on responsibilities. This is best done in steps, leading to progressively more important decisions or more significant responsibilities.

· Care. Care about what you are trying to accomplish and care about the people working with you to get there. I’m sure we can all think of someone we trust completely, whether it’s a parent, a best friend or your life partner. That trust is built over years by consistent actions and genuine care. It doesn’t mean that we make decisions based on emotions, but it does mean we can build business relationships and trust on a personal level.

Start today by observing your own behavior. Do you make your expectations clear? Are your actions consistent with your words? Do you really care about what you are doing and the people you are working with? Pay attention to your daily interactions, and you will build a level of trust that creates an environment of openness that leads to creativity, productive solutions and high performance.

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