This is the final part in the 3-part series looking at leadership and trust. You can start the series HERE with part 1.

The heart of what we do in life and leadership should always be “why” – clarifying purpose and passion for what we do. We started off this series in looking at why trust matters for leaders and within teams.

Expanding from that, leaders address the “what” – the things we do to achieve our core purpose. In part 2, we looked at what trust is, defining it by three essential components.

Finally, we must focus on “how” – the tangible ways we are achieving trust and building our cohesive team. For me, there is an important leap from simply understanding trust (why and what) to actively building it in our leader behavior (how). We culminate this series on leadership and trust in looking at how leaders can seek to earn, build, and maintain the trust of our people and teams.

Trust as Attitude

I believe that leaders must adopt two prevailing attitudes when it comes to earning and maintaining trust within our teams.

Attitude 1: Trust must be won in every interaction, action, and decision – every day. We never “arrive” when it comes to earning and maintaining the trust of our people. We must be deliberate in all our behaviors as leaders. Trust will not be won in singular large moments, but in small consistent behaviors, which we explore below.

Attitude 2: Understanding Trust vs. Transparency. There is an important dichotomy between operating from trust and having to offer transparency and leaders fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. If I trust you as a leader, I do not necessarily require to know the “why” behind decisions and what we do – I have the necessary faith and confidence in you. However, if I demand intent or “why,” it’s an indicator that I may not fully trust the leader or the decision.

In looking at this spectrum of trust vs. transparency, leaders should seek to recognize where we fall on it with our people and how we are actively moving more toward the trust end. Often, the easiest way we can earn more trust is by giving more transparency as leaders.

Trust as Behavior

Now with keeping those important attitudes in mind, we can explore some initial leader behaviors that will best enable us to cultivate this critical trust with others. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of ideas, but some initial things to consider to help shape your behavior moving forward.

Building All Three Components of Trust: Recalling the three components of trust – competence, character, and care – leaders must ensure we demonstrate all three components in our behavior. This is important because while they are interdependent and do have cross over with one another, they are three distinct items that require deliberate attention to build and showcase. This means that we can show personal care for our people by doing things like getting to know them personally and concern about important aspects of their lives (family, hobbies, goals and aspirations), but it will do nothing to build our competence with those people. Those efforts certainly improve our care component as leaders, but we need to also address the competence piece to encourage complete trust from our people.

But Start with What You Have: However, while we must build credibility across all three components of trust, we must start with what we have. As leaders assuming new formal roles of leadership within organizations, we likely do not come into that role with a lot of experience or technical credibility (I’m thinking of Army Second Lieutenants assuming Platoon Leader for the first time). So, though new leaders may lack perceived credibility, we can start with what we do already have – character and care for others. We initiate forming trust with our people in those ways while we work to build technical competence in our new role. We can gain that competence through showcasing a growth mindset and strong commitment to learning, identifying essential needs on the team and filling those gaps, and so on. As new leaders, we can lean on personal leader components (character and care) first while we work to build competency credibility. Remember, earning trust takes time and consistency (refer to the balloon analogy in part 1).

Show Trust First: If we are to expect trust from others, we must step out in faith first and show others trust. This requires leader vulnerability. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey state in their book, An Everyone Culture, that “…we admire people for the strengths they show us, but we are personally drawn to them for the vulnerabilities they show us.” Leaders can offer trust through vulnerability in ways such as sharing experiences of failure to help others to recognize the value of resilience, sharing perspective and articulating honest intent behind decisions, or even being ok with saying “I don’t know” when faced with challenging decisions. My best personal recommendation to learn more on leadership and vulnerability is Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.

Live the “Leadership Ratio”: As we looked at in the Feedback Primer, leaders can adapt John Gottman’s 5:1 relationship ratio to their leadership interactions. This means, leaders should strive to have around five positive, trust-building interactions for every one they have centered on giving constructive feedback, assessing performance, or holding them accountable for a failure or not meeting expectations.

Be Deliberate & Clear on a Team’s Trust Process: Finally, leaders can best enable the trust-building process within their teams by clarifying (being transparent about) how the team builds and offers trust to others. This often looks like a certification process. A previous boss of mine articulated that our organization trusts subordinate leaders through the process of educating and training them first, then certifying them, empowering them, and then finally trusting them. This reveals the competency component of organizational trust. For me to trust subordinate leaders in the organization, I must first ensure I equip them with the skills and knowledge by educating and training them. Then, I assess and verify their abilities through a certification. Once certification is verified, I empower subordinate leaders with the necessary authority to match their responsibility; they’ve earned that. Then, I trust them to carry out that ability without the need to micromanage or be overly involved. Trust requires vulnerability, absolutely, but it must also be offered prudently.

Series Conclusion

I think it’s important to re-look a critical idea that we started this series with – that trust is the currency of leadership; it is the highest form of motivation we can achieve with our people and on our teams. Trust is the bridge that moves our people from mere compliance to a choice of personal commitment to who we are, what we do, and why we do it. And while we don’t necessary intend for people to commit because of us, the leaders, we do recognize John Maxwell’s assertion that people buy in to the leader before they buy in to the vision.

I hope that this series has better equipped and inspired us toward cultivating trust with others and within our teams. With a little added knowledge on trust-building, I expect that we can now all go out and lead better. Lead well, friends.


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