When Leaders Say Trust Me

Anyone who travels the agricultural concessions of Southwestern Ontario is familiar with the honour system for buying corn, tomatoes, maple syrup and firewood. It isn’t often that we experience such trust in larger businesses. Can you imagine a national corporation trusting its customers to voluntarily pay what they owe? Well Canada Post does. Try sending a letter with inadequate postage. What you get is a delivered letter – and a postcard trusting you to attach the missing postage and return it to Canada Post.

            Trust is essential to good customer relationships, and it is also essential to good employee and employer relationships. During rapid change, it is common to hear employees say: “You can’t trust management”. Trust is something that is built or destroyed one person at a time. Leaders, when they speak and act, are assumed to be operating from a mandated agenda. And that’s why, when a manager isn’t trusted, the whole company’s reputation is spoiled.

            Trust is what makes people follow you, even when they have some questions about the direction you’re going in. Trust is what gives people the security to tell the truth about a situation when they are tempted to hide the ugly details. Trust is what counter-balances the natural fear of taking a risk and trying something new. Trust is something that effective leaders and high-performing teams have in common. Here are some ways to increase trust.  


1.                  Don’t assume mistrust is personal.  Some people trust everyone they meet, and others trust no one until they prove trustworthy. Likely your team is a mix of both types. Best to concentrate on earning their trust, since those who trust the fastest can be extremely unforgiving when their initial trust is broken. Determine to be trustworthy – and know that you have to earn trust every day in every interaction.


2.                  Be trustworthy in small things. If you make even a small promise, i.e. to get back to someone right away, or to forward some information, be sure to do it. Use your mobile device or a notepad to write a reminder to yourself. Have a pending file and check it regularly. One lapse in memory can be overlooked, but if you regularly break promises you will not be trusted.


3.                  Avoid gossiping. As a leader, you may not think to call it gossiping when you search out information. You may honestly be trying to learn about how someone is working by asking others.  Watch how you gather your data. Anytime you casually pry for information, or secretly talk about someone, you position yourself as a gossip. Many employees will think to themselves, “She’s doing the same thing when I’m not in the office – talking about me behind my back.” If you expect team members to evaluate each other on some aspects of workplace performance, make that expectation crystal clear. Then institute a fair feedback process (surveys, interviews) to make it happen. The irony is that as you become more trustworthy you will be given more data than you need, and it will be accurate and timely.


4.                  Delegate important tasks. Nothing makes a person feel more trusted than to be asked to do something important. Is there a meeting with an important client, or a presentation to senior management that you can give away? When you do, show trust by giving away the whole accountability, not just the drudgery tasks. Be prepared to offer coaching beforehand, and to be supportive afterward. When it’s done, applaud what worked and the initiative shown. Choose words of criticism carefully. If you don’t, it can feel like you sent a person out on a tree limb, and then sawed off the branch. No one will trust you the next time you come looking for a delegate. 


5.                  Share more about yourself. It’s not necessary for everyone to be treated as your best friend, or for your entire personal life to be displayed publicly. But studies show that the more we disclose about ourselves, the more trusted we are. This is especially true when we share information that makes us vulnerable. Everyone relaxes around a boss that is human. Tell stories about your past foolishness. Admit that you are working on some aspects of your own development. Apologize when you make a mistake. Every time you do so, you open the door to reciprocal trust. As trust increases and the conversation becomes more honest, you’ll learn more about your staff and peers, which will help you to better communicate to them.


6.                  Highlight commonalities. We tend to have higher trust for people who share our goals in a situation. Leaders can elevate team conversation to common goals and the higher purposes of the organization. When it’s obvious that we want the same outcomes, it becomes easier to trust each other on implementation details. Trust is also built on having non-work things in common, such as cultural background, hobbies, interests, values and beliefs. That’s because if I see that you have a deep understanding of significant elements of me, I can relax and trust you. Take time to find out what you and others at work have in common.


7.                  Consciously change people’s experience.  Sometimes you follow a previous leader who broke promises, spread rumours and outright lied. You will need to make extra effort to prove you are different. Find ways to discuss unhealed hurts. Remind people of your integrity. Take accountability for fixing what’s wrong.  Ask your staff to trust you and to tell you immediately if they perceive you to be acting distrustfully. It might help to document your promises, even informally in text messages and emails. This is a great way to firm up your commitment and remind yourself not to let things slide.


Jill Malleck is a Coach and Organization Development consultant whose company Epiphany at Work provides development solutions that accelerate positive change for individuals and work groups.

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