Three ways strong leaders build trust


Trust transforms everything inside an organization. When people trust each other, they’re willing to fight for each other, more readily work towards mutual goals, and aren't afraid to take calculated risks to drive positive change. Externally, the story is no different: trusted brands can command a premium for their products and services, attract top talent and enjoy strong customer loyalty.

Like a reputation, trust is difficult to develop and easy to lose. It also takes constant work to maintain, particularly in large enterprises which constantly have to fight to preserve their culture while adding new employees.

Senior leaders are the ones most often charged with fostering trust inside an organization, but it's absolutely critical that they ensure it cascades through middle management and is felt on the front-line, ideally reaching all the way to customers and clients.

I've had the luck and pleasure of working with many skilled, honest and impactful leaders, and there are definitely some consistent habits shared by those who are most trusted. I've seen them use these behaviours to maintain existing trust, nurture it in new employees, and strengthen company culture.

So, how do they do it?

1. They communicate early, often and openly. Good communication is critical to a leader’s overall success, and it's an essential skill in building trust as well. Open communication helps teams understand the “why” behind a project or initiative, rather than just the actions required to achieve the outcome.

And when things go wrong, transparency helps ensure that rather than blaming, the focus is on learning, planning and moving forward. (Two-way dialogue can help a lot here, as opposed to one-way announcements or speeches. More on that in a moment.)

Whenever possible, the most effective leaders also communicate about a project or initiative well before the final decision is made. Few actions foster trust more effectively than this. By communicating early in a project's life, a leader is effectively telling everyone in the organization, “we want to hear what you think before we decide what to do.”

There’s a fine line between open communication and turning every project into an all-employee vote. Some projects are also highly confidential, so discussing them ahead of the actual announcement may not be an option. However, employees provide a vital voice, so when it's possible, leaders seeking to build trust tend to lean toward more communication and sooner.

Why? Simply put, if you don’t trust your employees to involve them in a major decision until after the fact, it’s unrealistic to expect them to reciprocate - and unfortunately, research shows that many don't! In addition, if decisions (particularly contentious ones) are always announced after they’re made, speculation as to motive and ultimate outcome can take on a life of its own, which can be a difficult narrative to manage.

"Leaders have to be prepared to act on what they hear from employees, even if it challenges their plans."

A steady stream of communication from top leadership also ensures that new employees entering the organization hear from senior leaders often, and not only around the business-as-usual touchpoints (quarterly results, an annual meeting or annual employee engagement survey results).

2. They listen as much as they speak. Trust builds when everyone involved has a voice. That’s why using modern, two-way communications channels is so important. However, just giving your employees an opportunity to chime in simply isn’t enough.

Employees expect and deserve to be truly heard, and to have their voices reflected in the final decisions when they're ultimately made. That means listening is just the start. Indeed, leaders have to be prepared to act on what they hear from employees, even if it challenges their plans.

Empathy also plays a part here because the leader has to have ample emotional intelligence to truly listen, as well as a handle on his or her ego. This lets them understand other perspectives and put themselves in the shoes of employees or customers.

I remember one instance in which an internal announcement of a pending business decision was criticized by employees who worried about the impact the news would have on customers. Using an internal comment engine, employees urged the leader who made the announcement to reconsider.

The leader heard the feedback and reversed course within days. It could not have been easy, as the proposed decision would have made a contribution to the bottom line. However, as a result of the reversal, employees felt heard, empowered and respected – all key ingredients for trust inside an organization. 

"Authentic leaders are able to come across much as a brand would: the look, feel and experience of interacting with them is consistent." 

3. They try to be themselves, always and in all ways. Authenticity is a key condition for building trust. If your teams don’t feel you’re being yourself whenever they see or hear you, they won't respond as well because they will feel like you're acting.

This is true across written and in-person communications alike. If you use stilted prose or unnecessarily formal language in written communications, but then at a town hall you appear very casual, you risk creating cognitive dissonance rather than trust in your audiences. While it's true that leaders need to fit their style and approach to the occasion at hand, your "core you" shouldn't swing too wildly.

Indeed, authentic leaders are able to come across much as a brand would: the look, feel and experience of interacting with them is consistent. Just as a customer would be unlikely to trust a food brand whose hamburgers taste differently every time, employees require authentic consistency from effective leaders.

As an aside, I fully appreciate the irony of saying someone may need to consciously work at being authentic and manage how they're perceived - but it's the reality! Like anyone else, leaders often have self-expectations and biases about how they should act, which gets in the way of authenticity despite their best intentions. 

In addition to the three points above, it’s important to remember that organizational trust is a dynamic dimension of a business, rather than a static characteristic, or a box to be ticked. You can't "solve for" trust. It needs to be maintained, proven out in action, and unshakeable in its consistency thanks to the integrity with which its leaders and employees act on a daily basis.

I hope you enjoyed the post and if so, that you’ll take the time to like, share and comment!