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Building trust

  • Overview
  • Exercises


50% of us don’t trust management, or believe what they say.

You want to be in the right 50% of team leaders. If your team trust you, the overall mood of the team will be better, engagement and commitment will be higher. There is plenty of evidence on this1 – if your leadership style builds trust people will feel good to be around you and their well-being will be higher than in low-trust teams. You will retain staff better and your team will be more effective.

Leadership is symbolic, too. If people trust their team leaders it enhances their trust in their organisations, which further increase well-being and engagement.

But there are good reasons why trust is quite difficult to sustain as a leader, and why it takes thought and effort.

Let's start with the three main factors influencing how much we trust someone:

Factors that build trust

  1. You behave in a way that shows you are genuinely concerned for others - not just for your own agenda
  2. You don't promise people things they know are not within your power to deliver
  3. You consistently keep your promises

Do you inspire trust?

First, we make a judgement on their attitude towards us. In the jargon – do they seem benevolent? At work we judge this by how open they are, whether they involve us in decision-making and seem to trust us, and how aware they are of our needs and interests.

Do you over-promise?

Second we judge how able they are to deliver what they say. How straight are they being with us? Are they spinning us a line to keep us quiet? In other words, the bull**** factor.

Do you have a good track record?

Third, and most important, we look at their track record. Have they kept their promises in the past? Have they kept confidences? Have they done that consistently over time?

On a team level, if team members are open with each other, have honest and candid discussions, don’t over-promise but deliver what they do promise, then the team will have high levels of mutual trust and commitment.

Fail on any one of these and trust is diminished. And rebuilding trust is much harder than destroying it. If a particular event has caused mistrust, we can try to explain or apologise to restore people’s trust in us, but it may be a long haul.

But why is trust particularly difficult to sustain as a leader?

Why trusting leaders is hard

Partly it is to do with what you have to do as a leader, and partly it is to do with how people interpret your behaviour.

Leadership involves dealing with change and shifting priorities. Maybe people above you in the hierarchy have changed their minds, maybe circumstances have changed, maybe different customers with different preferences have become more important. As a leader you respond to this by being flexible. Perhaps change priorities for your own team. But unless you keep people fully informed of the what and the why, your team’s imagination will go into overdrive.

There is a well-researched psychological phenomenon known as "sinister attribution". Basically, we are inclined to assume the worst motives for someone else’s bad behaviour (whereas if we showed the same behaviour it would be because the circumstances forced us to behave like that). Hardly fair, but it's a fact.

The importance of consistency

You could almost conjugate a verb around change: I respond flexibly to changing circumstances, you are inconsistent, they can’t make their mind up.

And consistency is a major factor in trust.

So the odds are stacked against leaders being trusted, unless you make a real effort to communicate regularly and openly. Trust is built on decent behaviour, candid communication and delivering on promises.

Trusting the team

Trust is also ‘exchanged’ between people. The more you show me you trust me, the more will I trust you. So it is also important that you show people you trust them - by being fair with them, trusting them with new responsibilities, trusting people to act on their own initiative, and treating every single member of the team as an important individual in their own right. You can find out more about these topics in the link support & recognition and link developing people sections.

1. See eg recent meta-analysis of 600 research papers in Ng, 2017, Transformational leadership and performance outcomes, The Leadership Quarterly, 28 385 - 417


Exercise - Reflecting on your personal experience of trusting someone at work

Time: 10 minutes as an individual, 20 minutes for a team

This exercise helps you to understand what makes people trust each other

Exercise - Review your own track record on trust

Time: 20 minutes

This exercise will help you to review whether you behave in a way to earn people's trust