Any boss is able to activate people through giving commands, but people tend to provide the minimum effort necessary to fulfill those commands without some degree of trust and respect for their boss. Leaders, on the other hand, are able to rally followers to passionately pursue a vision because they have focused on building a relationship of trust and respect with their team members. In short, trust is not an automatic result of a title or position, but is built with effort over time. It is built day-by-day and interaction-by-interaction, but care must be taken because it can easily be damaged with a single misstep.
Trust makes it possible for leaders to influence others, a core ability of leadership, because it builds interpersonal commitment between the leader and team. When leaders are trusted, team members willingly accept vision and guidance from them. They also willingly accept change. Communication improves, ideas flow more freely, and creativity and productivity builds. With high levels of trust, engagement, motivation, and retention improves.
How does a leader build this trusting relationship with the people that he/she desires to lead? Trust is supported by consistent demonstration of certain competencies but is primarily built upon a variety of character traits, such as the following:
- Humility – A leader builds trust through being other-centered, valuing people and relationships. Humility is often described as “not thinking less of yourself, but rather, thinking of yourself less.” Through humility, team members know that their interests have high priority.
- Authenticity – A trustworthy leader demonstrates his/her humanity and identifies with the people that he or she leads. Through authenticity, the gap of organizational position is bridged, allowing a person-to-person relationship.
- Integrity – Trust is built through maintaining high ethical values and consistently living congruently with those values. Through integrity, team members can rest assured that the leader will always be guided by these strong values rather than undercutting those around them.
- Responsibility – A trustworthy leader is always ready to admit mistakes or take the blame for team failures rather than blaming others or pretending to be without fault. Through responsibility, team members have a strong feeling of safety.
- Communication – A leader builds trust by building a pattern of consistent and candid communication with team members. This practice of proactive communication eliminates the fear of hidden agendas and organizational surprises.
- Competence – Trust-building requires that the leader demonstrates competence in a range of skills, including some technical or functional skills but, more importantly, in leadership skills such as team-building, communication, etc. Through competence, a leader demonstrates the knowledge and ability required to make good judgments, offer good advice, and provide good feedback to team members.
- Honesty – Trust, of course, requires honesty or building a reputation of speaking the truth in all circumstances. By consistently speaking the truth, team members know that they can take leadership at their word.
- Reliability – A trustworthy leader follows through on commitments. As is sometimes said, their word is their bond. They don’t take promises lightly. Through a practice of reliability, team members learn that they can take the leader at his/her word.
- Transparency – By communicating intentions and reasons for taking certain actions or making certain changes, a leader builds trust. They make it clear that actions are not arbitrary or biased. Through transparency, leaders make it clear that no one is getting thrown under the bus; instead, the choices made are in the best interest of the team and all of its members.
- Openness – A leader builds trust through openness in both directions. We have mentioned the need for transparency and communication, but a part of building trust is demonstrating the value placed in the thoughts and input from team members. Trustworthy leaders seek feedback and take action upon it. They value the diversity of opinions that the team can generate. Through openness, the value of each individual is demonstrated.
Traits demonstrated at the top tend to flow down through the organization. Building a two-way relationship of trust between the leader and team members establishes a climate for influence and lays the foundation for a culture of trust. As trusting relationships grow throughout the team or organization, more effective work relationships are established leading to a cohesive and collaborative team. This team, built upon trust, becomes increasingly effective and a valuable asset to the organization.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.