How to win trust as a leader

How To Win Trust As A Leader

The idea that as a leader you must have the trust of the people who follow you has become a cliché. As with most clichés, this can be more unhelpful and misleading than useful. So in this article, I am not going to add another list of “easy” habits to win trust as a leader to those already out there, as if there is a silver bullet approach to winning the trust of others.

Instead, I am going to spell out the inner and outer struggles you will face as you attempt to juggle the competing needs of trust that the different people in your life expect from you.

Because what I have discovered is that trust as a leader emerges when you can resolve these struggles.

As Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) said

“Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

Just take a second and think what that means for you?

Who have you chosen to trust in your life?

Why did you trust them?

How have you felt when your trust has been betrayed?

As you think about these questions the importance of trust and what it means for you will emerge.

Many purveyors of advice about trust will say that

“Trust takes years to build but only minutes to break”

I for one have not found this to be true.

I have met people who I have trusted almost instantaneously on meeting for the first time and others that I haven’t trusted after many years of knowing them.

Trust is contextual (part 1)

You trust your accountant to do your accounts, your dentist to look after your teeth, a schoolteacher to educate your children.

Unless you have some proof of expertise you wouldn’t trust your account to give you a filling.

Get the point?

Trust exists on a scale.

It is possible to trust someone a little and over time. As you get to know the person better, as you sense that they are developing their skills and abilities in different areas, you might be willing to give them more trust.

But there might be some aspect of their character that keeps you holding back.

Success and Trust

The building of a successful life, career or business is dependent on who you choose to trust and who you choose not to trust.

But also, how you respond when you feel trust has been broken.

Do you become an untrusting, cynical person who holds people away?

Or can you bounce back, with your senses more finely tuned and your ability to identify trustworthy people more sharply honed?

Without trust, performance and results suffer

Harvard Professor, Patrick Lencioni, researched over 2000 teams in the corporate world. In his book, the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he identified a lack of trust as being the fundamental difference between teams that performed at their highest potential and those that fell short.

He went on to say that Total Trust was the essential foundation stone of all high performing teams.

Another challenge with trust is that most attempts to identify the aspects of leadership that build trust look at leadership from just one dimension; that of being a leader at work.

And no one is just a leader at work.

We all hold leadership positions in different aspects of life. Each of those different aspects of life can compete with each other and create tensions between them.

There are three major aspects of life in which we all have leadership roles, whether we have formally been given that title or not.

  • Work
  • Home/Family
  • Social

These three aspects can then be further subdivided. For example, at work, you may be responsible for a team which bestows a certain leadership responsibility. You might also be a part of a peer group team and that requires a different element of leadership, and then there is your relationship with your boss (even CEO’s have bosses). This brings in another leadership dynamic.

At home, you have your leadership relationship with your partner and children if you have them. Anyone with children will recognise the challenge of keeping trust with your partner and your children at all times.

And herein lies the first challenge of trust.

Is it possible to be trustworthy in everyone’s eyes at all times?

What I am talking about is conditionality.

Most people have an internal set of rules when it comes to trust, and they run something like this.

“I will trust you if….”

The “if ….” refers to behaviours that, in the eye of the trustor, are deemed to be acceptable.

Invariably these rules align with the trustor’s values.

So, if one of the trustor’s values is loyalty then she will trust you if you show that same value and if you don’t, she will not trust you.

If your highest value is a dedication to work and your partners is family, the trust between the two of you will come under pressure very quickly.

You can follow this line of thinking through all values:

Commitment, dedication, perseverance, I could go on, but as there over 400 words that describe values, I am not going to list them here. (You can download a list HERE to consider as you develop to win more trust as a leader)

The Challenge with Values

Given that no two people have the same life experience and upbringing, is it likely that two people will share exactly the same values?

Now put this into a team of 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9 people.

How likely is it that there will be any consensus about values?

And yet it is still the case that teams of people can and do exhibit trust. So, what is going on?

This is where shared company/personal values become important. They are the basis upon which people navigate their differences and agree on how to get things done.

But I’m not talking about the clichéd sentences that exist in a glossy company brochure. I’m talking about the informal, under the radar values that get the nod and wink acceptance of “how things get done around here”.

Nothing will break trust quicker than not conforming to the informal rules.

When it comes to developing trust there are some misconceptions about leadership that need to be discussed.

You do not need to be a larger than life character to be a trusted leader

Some people are larger than life characters and they are amazing leaders who inspire loyalty, bravery and commitment. And very often this is the first image of leadership that springs to mind when discussing the concept of leadership.

Our trust in this type of leader comes from their own unerring self-belief and ability to communicate. They infuse their enthusiasm, vigour and energy into others. They lead through contagion.

We trust them because they have total trust in themselves, or at least that’s what they portray in public.

The film Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill in the early weeks of his prime ministership when he came to office in WW2, although a dramatization, effectively shows Churchill as the charismatic leader that united a country in need. It also shows his private doubts and the internal and external fights he had to win to maintain his leadership position.

Trust in any leader is about the context (Part 2)

But, after the war, Churchill was unceremoniously ejected as prime minister when the Labour party was elected to get the country back on its feet again.

Churchill was no longer trusted as the leader to deal with the problems faced by the country post-war time.

Trust can be a fickle friend.

You don’t have to be out-going

In this TED Talk, Susan Cain shows us that introverts have been some of the most powerful and transformative leaders in history.

Adam Grant, Professor at the Wharton Business School, researched the effectiveness of introvert and extravert leaders and discovered that frequently, introverted leaders can be more effective.

You don’t have to be perfect or invincible

And in this Ted Talk, Brené Brown reveals that showing vulnerability is humanising and far more demonstrative of true courage than false shows of bravado and confidence.

She took this idea on in her book Dare To Lead.

This is an important principle that stops many from achieving their potential as leaders. They cannot imagine themselves as leaders because they are all too aware of their faults and they see them as limiting weaknesses.

As with all tendencies, there is a balance to be achieved.

There is no more benefit in depreciating your abilities than there is in exaggerating them.

Many people find it harder to talk openly about their qualities than they do about their weaknesses.

Have the courage to be YOU

What Susan Cain, Adam Grant and Brené Brown reveal is that the trust that is the foundation of effective leadership comes when you have the courage to be you.

But why should it take courage to be yourself?

Because when you are in a leadership position you open yourself to the criticisms and judgements of the people you lead.

This causes many to put on a psychological protective mask and you will have met people who do this.

They are recognisable by such give away phrases as…

“That’s not the real me, I have to be like that for work”

“I have to be hard at work or they’ll just walk all over me”

“It’s not my fault, it’s (the board’s, my boss’s, the shareholder’s, the customer’s) decision.”

The need to adopt masks is driven by the deep-seated belief that you are not good enough as who you are naturally.

But nothing destroys trust quicker than the feeling of been deceived. When you are dealing with someone who is wearing a mask the feeling of deception is never far from the surface.

In this article from Psych Central Theresa Borchard describes the 10 most common masks that people adopt for protection.

Do you wear any that might be affecting your ability to win trust as a leader?

So, How Do You Become a Trusted Leader?

If you just want a list of things to do or behaviours to adopt this Google search will bring up a list of lists where you can find such advice. But…

… if you don’t get this next bit right none of these pieces of advice will help.

The overriding principle that will determine whether you can and will be trusted is the company you keep.

Whether it is professional or personal, you will only be trusted when you mix with people who think like you or whom you aspire to think like.

One of the biggest reasons that careers/businesses/relationships falter is that people find themselves out of alignment with the beliefs, values, morals and standards of the other people involved.

This leads to the feeling that you are being asked to do things that you don’t want to do, that are morally wrong and ethically questionable.

These are the inner struggles that only you can manage.

It starts with picking the right organisations and the right people.

If you are a career professional; don’t work for a company that demonstrates values that are significantly different to yours. If you do decide to work for such a company, you will be required to act in ways that are unacceptable to you. This will create a domino effect of stress and lack of trust which will ultimately lead to a place where you will have to leave. And either you will end up making that decision or it will be made for you.

If you run your own business: do not recruit your staff based on their skills. Recruit them based on their beliefs and values. Do they align with you? You will be better off taking on someone of lesser skill but who are aligned with your thinking than someone who is very skilled but at odds with your approach.

What to do when you can’t control who you work or live with?

Come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to trust you and that you are not going to trust everyone.

It is common today for so-called experts to dish out advice about not compromising on your values and standards but sometimes, for sanity’s sake, you must bend.

Set some boundaries.

How far are you prepared to go before you say “no”.

How hard does someone have to push before you are prepared to say yes?

When people understand your boundaries you become more trustworthy, as the basis of your decision making becomes more transparent.


You know what it takes for you to trust someone.

Talk, open up, work it out between you.

But do it up front.

Don’t wait for trust to be broken before you discuss what trust means for you and what your expectations are?

And if you can’t agree, then maybe that relationship isn’t right for you

Damn. I’ve just gone and done what I said I wouldn’t, given you a list of things to do.

But I hope you still trust me!

Sometimes I think we can take it all too seriously and overthink things.

And as the singer Sade said

“Nothing Can Come Between Us, it’s about faith, it’s about trust”

You can listen HERE and it sounds way better in her voice.

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