Trust and Leadership

by Randy Hall

There have been scores of books, blogs, and articles written on the importance of trust in leadership. Most experts, authors, gurus, and thinkers agree that without trust you cannot lead. You may be able to herd, coerce, corral, or even intimidate, but you cannot lead. While leaders everywhere would probably agree with this, there are very few who know how to define and build trust. I say “define” because it’s almost impossible to build, create, or work towards something we cannot define. How we define trust has everything to do with how we set out to create or influence it.

There are probably thousands of definitions for the word itself. Webster’s dictionary goes with, “the belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.” I don’t think many people would dispute this statement, but it doesn’t help us create a path toward building trust. Consider this definition, “Trust happens when people believe we have their best interests at heart.” If we think others are engaged in genuinely trying to help us, we listen and think about their words differently. We do this even when we initially disagree with them. We are quicker to accept information from others we think have our best interests in mind, not just their own. Also, this definition helps us see a path to building trust with anyone, regardless of our experience, skill-level, or history. Then, we start to ask the question, “How do I demonstrate to someone that I genuinely have their best interests at heart?”

Learn Through Questions

There is not much that demonstrates an interest in someone more than asking questions. Especially questions about their goals, their achievements, and their philosophy on things. If we don’t know what’s important to them, we can’t possibly have that in mind when we work with them. I have seen leaders fire people and actually gain trust in the process. Even the firing process was about helping that person. For example, helping them find what they really wanted to do or how they wanted to contribute to something different. They simply refused to allow that person to stay in a role and be less than they were capable of. If the person believes what you are doing is helpful to them, even actions that affect them negatively can build trust. But you have to know what they care about first and to do that, leaders have to ask the right questions.

Let Them Know You

People cannot trust you or believe they understand your motives unless they know you. So many times, as leaders, we show the things we want people to see and hide the things we don’t. I’m not suggesting that we overshare and start airing our dirty laundry. However, I am saying that we have to create opportunities for people to know us well enough to trust us. They need to trust that we are the kind of person who would want to help them. This is often one of the biggest challenges we have as leaders.

Letting people get to know what kind of person we are sometimes shows what our biggest difficulties are as well. In the absence of that understanding, people will judge our intentions and motivations based on their own assumptions. Often times, this will lead to mistrust. Some people haven’t had very many managers or leaders invest in them along the way. Therefore, they have to know that you are different in order to believe you would want to.

Mistakes Make Great Stories

There is a strong connection between someone believing you genuinely want to help them and the understanding that you have made some of the same mistakes or had some similar experiences. Often, people are reluctant to share their own challenges. This is because it’s hard to admit mistakes to a person you believe has never made any. There has to be a connection and some common ground for people to trust us. Telling stories and sharing mistakes helps people relate to your world and see how it could connect with their own. For example, how the mistakes challenged you, what you learned, or what you did differently to avoid them in the future.

Becoming a more effective leader is not an easy thing to do. Even if we do the tactical parts of leadership well, people still won’t follow if there’s not a strong foundation of trust. I have known leaders who were trustworthy, but not trusted. While trust is only one piece of how we create influence, it is critical if we want our employees to reach more of their potential. Ultimately, it is not enough for us to believe we are helping others accomplish and achieve more. They have to believe it as well.


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