Think Leadership Ideas


Trust is not neutral - it either accelerates or decelerates what you can accomplish.

If you engender high levels of trust as a leader, you get the benefit of the doubt. People carry on with their efforts, look beyond mistakes, and work around annoyances and inconveniences.

On the other hand, if trust is low or absent, people will question everything. They do just enough to get by in relative safety. They won’t believe information you provide and will ascribe negative intention to your actions.

Trust can change in a heartbeat from positive to negative. This is easily observed following a leader’s direct breach of trust. What is less obvious is when the shift occurs because of changes beyond a leader’s control, e.g. a sudden budget shortfall or market down-turn that raises people’s fear. The knee-jerk response is to look for blame, and trust is reduced. In these circumstances, a leader’s track record of trust is an invaluable asset.

Trust can change from negative to positive, but this often takes time. Effective leaders constantly and consciously act in ways that cultivate trust. How? Here are seven strategies that you can start using today.

Make it personal
Nothing builds trust like one to one interaction. Trust is contagious. One person’s level of trust, positive or negative, often becomes a cue for how other people will also respond.
Executives take note, study after study concludes that frontline employees trust immediate supervisors far more than senior management. Personal contact matters, and personal doesn’t mean sending everyone a video of the CEO’s message.

Stand for something
Consistency, congruence, and coherence build trust and create influence. Consistency, what you do over and over again, shows reliability. Congruence, matching actions to your words, demonstrates authenticity. Coherence, your identity and your story over time, imparts meaning. Consistency, congruence, and coherence can communicate your work and life as a powerful story - one that helps people understand what you are about, what you stand for, and what they can trust.

Declare intent
This technique works especially well with people who are prone to leaping into problem solving or are quick to point out what can be improved. (Engineers, scientists, and many executives seem to have an occupational hazard for this.) Simply interjecting criticisms or constructive observations, no matter how valid, one after the other, can come across as very negative. As an executive coach, I encourage leaders to craft statements of intention, and say them often - particularly at the beginnings of meetings. Start a staff meeting, for example, saying your intent is to ensure every customer has an excellent experience, then when you offer criticisms, they’re in the context of that very positive goal.

Market transparency
A problem with many organizations is that transparency may exist, but nobody knows about it. We can make all the information available in the world to somebody, but if they don’t know how to acquire it, where to look for it, or even know that it’s available, they will still react as if management is secretive and therefore not to be trusted. The lesson - don’t simply be transparent, but market how people can see what is going on in an organization. Summarize key information and be proactive in distributing it.

Seed accountability and weed blame
People can respect being held accountable. They are, of course, likely to avoid being blamed or punished. An atmosphere of accountability and responsibility encourages corrective action, blame encourages ducking and laying low so you won’t be punished. Which do you want for your organization?
Step up feedback systems that lets people know what’s working well and what’s not. Describe actions using behavioral, not evaluative language. Make sure your feedback is about what people can do something about - it isn’t helpful to be critical of things nobody can change.

Speak of others as though they were present
There are few better habits for building trust and trustworthiness. When you speak of others as if they were present, then people trust you are not speaking of them critically without their knowledge.

Learn to apologize
Top performers and leaders make mistakes, it comes with the territory of taking risks and growing. When we have fallen down on our commitments, it’s appropriate and even necessarily that we apologize. Executive coach extraordinaire, Marshall Goldsmith, suggests a simple three step process. Number one, say you’re sorry. Number two, say you will do better in the future. Number three, shut up - don’t say anything else. Explanations and excuses aren’t helpful. And of course, follow up apologies with appropriate restitution or corrective action, when appropriate.

by Tom Stevens (c)2010
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact him, visit

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