Trust is the core of leadership. When it’s present, you can build strategic alliances, coach team members, nurture loyalty, and create alignment. When it’s lacking, you might be able to establish compliance, however, you can’t inspire commitment. If you want to be an inspiring leader, you have to be generous with your trust and take on the responsibility to build, earn, and foster trust with and among your team members.
When trust is present, you can count on the other person to:
- Deliver: When you tell someone to do something, they do it, and they do it right. They will give you exactly what you need.
- Be Reliable: When they say they’ll do something, you believe them.
- Be Honest: When you ask them a question, you can count on them to tell you what they’re really thinking.
- Be Loyal: They have your back; you can count on them.
- Lead you in the right direction towards your company’s, team’s, or client’s best interest.
- Consider your needs, agenda, and priorities when creating a strategy or making a decision that will impact you.
If trust is absent, you tend to second-guess, assume the worst, repeat yourself, and get more involved than necessary. You might also find yourself withholding important information or feeling resistant to delegate tasks. You lose the ability to lead, coach, inspire, or influence. In short, trust is THE most critical aspect of leadership.
What Does It Mean to Trust Someone?
Since my children were young, we have referred to trust as a “relationship bank account.” With every call, text, email, or action, there’s either a deposit or a withdrawal. When my son was 15-years old, he “borrowed” my car – without a license – while I was away and used it to teach his friend to drive. He then did not tell us the entire story when confronted. Suffice to say, this venture was a huge withdrawal, and it has taken years to rebuild our trust account. I am happy to report that the white car at the top of this post is the day I drove behind him on his way home from the dealership for his first car. I am grateful for the incident, because it afforded us the opportunity to contract for what trust is and is not, which we have been practicing diligently for the last 3 years. (If you can build trust with teenagers, you can build it with anyone!)
No matter how small the action, there is always some element of adding or subtracting trust. It is critical to remember this when communicating with team members, leading meetings, delivering tasks, or working to be a trustworthy family member.
Trust Requires Taking a Risk
When you trust someone, you are confident in their ability to meet your needs or protect what matters to you. It can feel quite vulnerable to hand over responsibility for your team’s deliverables or your child’s education to another person. Every time you choose to trust, you make a risk assessment about the other person.
I recently met with a team of senior leaders who need to work together intensively over the next six months to deliver on a goal that will determine the future of their organization. They can’t afford any mistakes and have been struggling with low trust in several of their team members. One member, in particular, is critical to the success of the project. As the head of New Product Development, she has to work with every other member of the team. Her colleagues were struggling to answer the question, “How do we build trust with someone who is the lynchpin to our success when we already fear she won’t deliver?” As a result of the team’s high performance coaching process, these questions were able to surface and get resolved. In follow up data, every member rated “ability to have real conversations, ability to deliver and increased trust” as the biggest areas of progress the team had made in three short months.
Tips to Build Trust At Work
I have a client who was recently promoted, and now needs a high level of buy-in and alignment with one critical colleague who has a high degree of influence with the CEO. “We’re not in alignment,” he told me early on. “I’m not sure how I can deliver to my CEO considering the obstacles that this person is creating. I don’t even want to involve him in the work.”
It is common for leaders not to say “I need trust, they usually complain about a lack of alignment or buy-in with others. I understood my client’s frustration and his desire to pull away – this is a natural inclination when trust isn’t secure.
Many years ago I met a policeman with a K-9 German shepherd, and he said this: “When a dog bites your hand, your first instinct is to pull away. However, if you jam your hand further INTO the dog’s mouth, it forces the dog to open its jaws and release your hand.” This is a great metaphor for building trust with critical people you would rather avoid.
I suggested to my client that instead of avoiding his colleague, he might lean in, and engage with interest in his colleague’s agenda and needs and he scheduled a followup meeting, with reluctance. The next time we spoke, he was elated and told me the conversation had gone surprisingly well. It turned out that they were far more aligned than he had thought (which is common). “By avoiding him, I was making things worse than they needed to be,” he told me. “One conversation changed everything.”
If you’re having difficulty with a key stakeholder, here are a few constructive ways to approach the situation:
- Have a conversation: Lean in: you can’t build trust through emails and texts. Sit down in person, and talk things through face-to-face
- Give context: Let the other person know upfront why you’d like to take a few minutes to check-in. You might let them know ahead of time or at minimum, start with the phrase, “I want to check in about how…”
- Start with care: Work to understand the other person’s key priorities, agenda, point of view, and let them know their priorities matter to you. Usually (in the first or subsequent conversations) the conversation shifts to focus on your needs and priorities, too. Set the intention to listen and be curious about them and you might be surprised how much better it goes
- Invest in the relationship: Think about growing trust as growing a plant. You can’t water it once and hope it thrives. It’s ongoing, especially with the most important stakeholders
Assessing Trust in Key Relationships
Most of us don’t walk around consciously evaluating our level of trust with other people. Instead, we focus on how we feel around them: How willing or unwilling we are to engage, delegate, share information, disagree, or make requests.
If you consistently feel anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, or irritated by someone, a lack of trust could be the underlying issue. I have created a simple yet powerful tool to help you assess trust with your most important stakeholders. You can download and print the Trust Tool here, and I encourage you to use it and share it with others.
In an upcoming post, I will go into greater detail about how you can confidently and strategically assess trust with your team.
- How do I tend to behave when I do NOT trust others?
- Are there behaviors I see in others that might indicate they have low trust in ME?
- How clear am I about the level of trust I have with key people in my work and life?
I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please drop me an email at email@example.com and let me know your thoughts, reactions, and questions.
Yours in practice,
If you are interested in exploring whether we are a good fit to help you and your organization, contact us for a complimentary discovery conversation.
Want to Build More Trust on Your Team?
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