Building trust

50% of us don’t trust management, or believe what they say.

You want to be in the right 50% of team leaders. If your team trust you, the overall mood of the team will be better, engagement and commitment will be higher. There is plenty of evidence on this1 – if your leadership style builds trust people will feel good to be around you and their well-being will be higher than in low-trust teams. You will retain staff better and your team will be more effective.

Leadership is symbolic, too. If people trust their team leaders it enhances their trust in their organizations, which further increase well-being and engagement.

But there are good reasons why trust is quite difficult to sustain as a leader, and why it takes thought and effort.

Let's start with the three main factors influencing how much we trust someone.

Do you inspire trust?

First, we make a judgement on their attitude towards us. In the jargon – do they seem benevolent? At work we judge this by how open they are, whether they involve us in decision-making and seem to trust us, and how aware they are of our needs and interests.

Do you over-promise?

Second we judge how able they are to deliver what they say. How straight are they being with us? Are they spinning us a line to keep us quiet? In other words, the bull**** factor.

Do you have a good track record?

Third, and most important, we look at their track record. Have they kept their promises in the past? Have they kept confidences? Have they done that consistently over time?

On a team level, if team members are open with each other, have honest and candid discussions, don’t over-promise but deliver what they do promise, then the team will have high levels of mutual trust and commitment.

Fail on any one of these and trust is diminished. And rebuilding trust is much harder than destroying it. If a particular event has caused mistrust, we can try to explain or apologise to restore people’s trust in us, but it may be a long haul.

But why is trust particularly difficult to sustain as a leader?

Why trusting leaders is hard

Partly it is to do with what you have to do as a leader, and partly it is to do with how people interpret your behaviour.

Leadership involves dealing with change and shifting priorities. Maybe people above you in the hierarchy have changed their minds, maybe circumstances have changed, maybe different customers with different preferences have become more important. As a leader you respond to this by being flexible. Perhaps change priorities for your own team. But unless you keep people fully informed of the what and the why, your team’s imagination will go into overdrive.

There is a well-researched psychological phenomenon known as "sinister attribution". Basically, we are inclined to assume the worst motives for someone else’s bad behaviour (whereas if we showed the same behaviour it would be because the circumstances forced us to behave like that). Hardly fair, but it's a fact.

The importance of consistency

You could almost conjugate a verb around change: I respond flexibly to changing circumstances, you are inconsistent, they can’t make their mind up.

And consistency is a major factor in trust.

So the odds are stacked against leaders being trusted, unless you make a real effort to communicate regularly and openly. Trust is built on decent behaviour, candid communication and delivering on promises.

Trusting the team

Trust is also ‘exchanged’ between people. The more you show me you trust me, the more will I trust you. So it is also important that you show people you trust them - by being fair with them, trusting them with new responsibilities, trusting people to act on their own initiative, and treating every single member of the team as an important individual in their own right. You can find out more about these topics in the link  support & recognition and link developing people sections.

Quick tips for teams and individuals

Your own personal experience

Ask yourself some of the following questions to help you reflect on trust in your workplace or team:

  1. Spend ten minutes thinking of someone you work with (or have worked with) who you feel is very trustworthy
  2. What is it about them, and their behaviour, that makes them trustworthy?
  3. What lessons can you draw from that?
  4. Does your workplace culture influence how trusting people are of each other?
  5. What might you, and others, do differently to improve that?

Review your track record

Ask yourself one of these questions:

  1. Spend ten minutes reviewing your own track record - as an individual or team. Can you think of times when you have:
    • Promised things that you knew you might not be able to deliver?
    • Not kept a promise?
    • What would you do differently if you had the chance?
  2. What about you trusting others?
    • Do you make it clear enough to your colleagues that you trust them?
    • How do you do this?
  3. What can you learn from this for the future?



1. See eg recent meta-analysis of 600 research papers in Ng, 2017, Transformational leadership and performance outcomes, The Leadership Quarterly, 28 385 - 417