One of the most inspiring Bible verses as a military leader is: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his brother” –John 15:13. How do we achieve such love, commitment, and willingness to sacrifice between our “brothers and sisters” in our organization? It starts with trust.
Establishing genuine trust among leaders and followers is truly the holy grail of achieving organizational success. Once it is built, the floodgates of opportunity open. This creates commitment to the organizational vision and goals by your people, the ability to shape and improve your culture, and makes your organization more effective in accomplishing its mission. Trust is the “glue” that binds leaders and followers; it’s what allows your people have confidence in you as their leader. Trust is the greatest gift anyone can give you; it is more valuable than their time, effort, or money because it requires vulnerability.
As a previous boss told me, “relationships are pacing items” (definition of a pacing item provided at the end of this post). Building trust requires influence, and influence is more than mere persuasion. Persuasion is focused on short-term goals by using a single or select few interactions with people to make them see your way. Influence, however, is far-reaching toward long-term goals using numerous interactions, and numerous ways of interacting, directly with people to win them over to your ideas; influence is positive and inspiring.
Who to Build Trust With
We must identify who we need to build trust with, first. If you’re a leader-manager of an organization of about 150 people (such as an Army company commander), I argue it is feasible to sufficiently interact with everyone in your organization and build trust with each one. However, if you’re leading 700 people (like an Army battalion commander) or more, you need to identify your key players, both in formal and informal positions of influence, and build trust with them first. In building trust with them, they naturally carry that trust down to their people; trust and influence percolates down.
Building trust must do more than reach down to your people; it needs to reach up and across your organization as well. You need to build trust with your peers, who lead the organizations to your left and right (e.g. company commanders building trust with their other company commanders). You also need to build trust with your bosses so they can trust you and your organization to accomplish the assigned mission.
Always be cognizant of who you need to build trust with to maximize the effectiveness of your organization and you as a leader.
Actions to Build Trust
Below are actionable recommendations to help you relate to your people, influence them, and ultimately build trust with them over time. Remember, trust is not built in a single interaction; that’s persuasion. Trust and influence requires time to grow and must continuously be reinforced.
- Shared experiences and shared hardship. In the Army, a foxhole is dug for two or more people; organizational challenges must be shared challenges. Get dirty and struggle with your people; hump the load with them. This also allows you the opportunity to prove your value and skills to your people. As a company commander, I created shared hardship training events in order to achieve this. Trust is built on difficult ground.
- Be present. Be in your office only when you must in order to accomplish administrative tasks, planning, and other such requirements. Otherwise, get out and be with your people where they are at. Leaders go where their people are. Read more about Leadership by Wandering Around (LBWA).
- Speak truth in love. Leadership requires giving honest feedback, which includes negative feedback; don’t avoid giving it. But ensure you do it in love, caring for the person and their growth. Read more about the art of giving negative feedback. Speaking hard truth shows everyone across the organization that you value accountability and you maintain consistent standards, which will further build trust across the organization; doing so in love shows you value your peoples’ development too.
- Be transparent. Being vulnerable to achieve relational trust must be a two-way street; you cannot expect your people to be vulnerable to achieve trust without you also sharing in that vulnerability. Within appropriate boundaries, being vulnerable and transparent shows your people that you trust them too.
- Show interest in people. People are interested in the people that are interested in them. You need to show a genuine interest in your people for who they are, not just what they can do for your organization. If you care about them, they will see that and then care about you and what you are trying to achieve in the organization. I may not know anything about fishing or maintaining old cars, but I am very good at listening to someone talk about those things and asking them questions about it. Create a unique connection with each person that you need to build trust with; it can be a shared similarity such as home states or hobbies, using a creative and encouraging nickname, or having shared memory that you both value. These unique connections can serve as relationship rally points for you to keep coming back to as needed.
- Show them the “why.” Communicate to your people what is going on in the “bigger picture” of the organization and why we are doing the things we are doing now. It provides them context. By explaining why, people can connect their daily actions to the bigger vision. You can read more about ***organizational vision***. Also, give them credit in organizational victories and join them in suffering through (and learning from) failure and defeat.
- Let people know you need them. Everyone needs to be needed by others in work and in life. Relying on certain people over and over on critical projects because they are reliable and deliver results is not an effective method of communicating that you need them. You need to verbally communicate your peoples’ value and your appreciation. Tell them that you or the organization could not have accomplished x, y, or z without them. Also, listen to what your people have to say about the organization and ideas to improve performance and culture; you need them to improve the organization too.
- Treat people as potential and respect them. People fail. It happens, and you likely can’t be the first one to throw a stone. We learn from failure though. Don’t treat your people as the sum of their past experiences and failures. If you treat your people as the potential they showcase to have, 99% of the time they will live up to that potential. Affirm and encourage your people. Practice John Maxwell’s (author of The 21 Laws of Leadership) “30-second rule” of encouraging or affirming someone within the first 30 seconds of talking to them, every time you talk to them.
Actions to Avoid that Break Trust
During a lecture at West Point that I attended, author, Sebastian Junger (War and Tribe), stated that “no relationship can survive contempt.” Contempt does not simply force its way into a relationship; someone’s behavior in the relationship, conscious or not, broke trust which nurtured this sense of contempt. Here are actions to avoid that absolutely break trust in a relationship.
- Break a promise. Not delivering on what you said you will is the fastest why to break the glue of trust between leader and follower. If your words and promises mean nothing to your people, you’re going nowhere as a leader and you cannot take your organization to the next level.
- Inconsistent messages. Your words, actions, and decisions as a leader must align. Your people will pick up on the slightest deviation between these behaviors. Do not give your people reason to compare and question what you say versus what you do and decide. Inconsistent messages can come from other sources than just you as well; they can come from subordinate leaders in the organization and other sources external to the organization or above you. You must ensure that all sources of organizational messaging are consistent and address misalignment immediately. This also applies to talking about your people behind their back; ensure your messages about your people are the same across the board.
- Performance-only focus; not emphasizing development also. If you don’t have your peoples’ best interests in mind, they will not entrust themselves to you. Your people are not mere means to accomplish personal or organizational ends. They have goals and dreams of their own. Care for their interests and development, and work to align your peoples’ goals with the organization’s vision and goals. Similarly, you cannot be overly judgmental and critical of your peoples’ performance. Coach your people toward performance improvement; you can read more about coaching as a leader.
- Twisting the truth, lying, and withholding information. No matter the motive, engaging in any of these behaviors is destructive toward organizational trust. Not understanding the bigger picture or why your people are doing the tasks they are is frustrating for them; learning that you had the information to educate them to allow them to better understand is negligent. Keep your people informed of what’s going on. Also, you cannot ignore the “elephants” in the organization, which are the things everyone is whispering about such as outrageous rumors that no one ever discusses openly. If such issues make their way to your office, bring them out into the open, explain them, and answer questions as best as possible.
- Caring for personal needs at the expense of others. This is the essence of John Maxwell’s law of sacrifice. As a leader, you will never “arrive” to a position of benefit that is void of sacrifice and duty. You certainly should never reap rewards that your people are not entitled to; you are entitled to nothing and you must always work harder and sacrifice more than your people, period. Do not use your position for personal benefit. Do not require your people to do anything that you would not do yourself.
You can read more about leadership and trust here and here. Remember, enacting these behaviors and establishing trust takes time. Progress is achieved by daily commitment to building meaningful relationships. Similar to the Bible verse that I used to start this post, I also love the common military quote (and tattoo) that states “for those I love, I will sacrifice.” Love, respect, and sacrifice for your people, and the trust will follow.
Definition: a pacing item is a vital piece of Army equipment that is designated as required for a unit to accomplish its mission; it is the highest equipment readiness code in the Army. Units must constantly care for and maintain such equipment items, routinely reporting their mission readiness to the highest Army levels. Similar to this critical equipment, professional relationships are vital to your success as a leader and require constant care and attention in order for them to be “mission ready” when needed. You cannot accomplish your mission without relationships.