Often, when you hear the words “trust” and “leader” in one sentence, the focus is on how to become a trusted leader. Undoubtedly, being a trusted leader has a major impact on the organization’s performance and must be the first step in building trust in the organization. Still, it’s not enough to build trust among others or help the employees be generally trusted.
To understand the role of the leader in building trust, we must first start with a few truisms about trust.
The first is that people's trust in you is the product of their trustability (their willingness to trust people in general) and your trustworthiness. There is almost nothing you can do about the former and everything you can do about the latter. As a result, the building block of trust and the focus of every trust-building effort must be a person’s trustworthiness.
The second is that trust is relative. No set of actions or behaviors will make you trusted by everyone. In reality, the same behavior that would cause someone to trust you (probably someone who shares values with you) might cause another person to distrust you (likely someone who doesn’t share your values). Shared values were found to have the highest correlation with trust (86%).
The third is that gaining trustworthiness is like losing weight. Knowing what you must do is not enough. You must form new habits that will make you trustworthy.
Any effort by a leader to build trust in the organization must be built through four layers: motivation, knowledge, process, and coaching.
We do things because the motivation to do them is greater than the effort required. Just like no weight loss effort would be successful if you are not motivated enough, no trust-building effort would be successful if you are not motivated enough. The motivation comes from knowing the effects of having high levels of trust (versus low levels). The motivation must exist for the employees who will embark on the process of building their motivation, as well as the leaders and management in the company that must make building trust a priority. The process takes time but is worth it. It will not start without enough motivation. Don’t skip this layer, or the efforts will fail.
We are much more effective in learning new skills and developing new habits when we understand how they work and why they exist. To build one’s trustworthiness, one must understand how trust behaves through the 8 laws of trust. For example, the understanding that trust is contextual, and there are different levels of trust associated with different areas of the relationship or different activities. You may trust someone to fly your plane but not to perform surgery on you. Furthermore, it’s important to know how the six-component trustworthiness model works, which gives you a perspective of the lenses through which other people see you in terms of who you are (competence, personality compatibility, and symmetry/fairness) and what you do during an interaction (positivity, time, and intimacy). To apply the process that will make you trustworthy, you must first understand how trust works and how people evaluate your trustworthiness.
W. Edward Deming, considered one of the fathers of the quality movement, said, "If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing.”
My work on trust resides in the intersection of the science of trust and the science of habit-forming. Knowing how trust works and how people evaluate your trustworthiness is an important first step, but not enough to be trusted by them. You can’t outsource this work and can’t pay to get it done faster. You must now form habits that will change behaviors that may be holding you back from being more trusted by them. This 7-step Trust Habits™ process begins with assessing your current trustworthiness situation and continues with creating a habit-changing plan that would address your current situation and transform it into a future situation in which you are trusted. It will help you identify a new habit and what will help you form this habit until you don’t have to think about it anymore. Until you behave and act in a new, more trustworthy way. It will take time, a lot of repetition, and the use of an accountability partner.
The process described above is neither easy nor simple. It requires commitment and offers many opportunities for mistakes. You might identify the wrong relationship or focus on changing the wrong behavior, which would give you a different result than you hoped.
Theories of learning support several stages of learning a new skill. They start with explanation and demonstration and continue with doing things under supervision until you can do them yourself. Once you have mastered the new skill, I would argue that there is one more level—teaching, coaching, or mentoring others.
As a leader, once you build your own trustworthiness in the eyes of your team, it’s time to coach them through the process. As quoted from the book Built to Last, “be a clock-maker, not a time-teller.” You have experience with the process, you know the people on your team, and you can help them build their trustworthiness. My surveys found that if your team members trust each other more, they are 240% more willing to be vulnerable with one another, 106% more willing to give essential feedback, 76% more receptive to such feedback, and 71% more capable of conducting a constructive disagreement. Projects are 45% more likely to end on time and within budget, and there is a slew of other benefits which you, as a leader, can thus influence.
Start with Trust
While you can coach your team members on how to be more trusted by one another, you can’t really coach them on how to be more trusted by you. For that, you must use the principle of reciprocity of trust. Ernest Hemingway said, "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” When you trust someone and show them that you trust them, they will behave in a more trustworthy way. Imagine what you would feel when someone shows you that they trust you. Wouldn’t you make sure you earned that trust? Don’t trust blindly, but trust a little more than you did before. You will begin a cycle of continuously increasing trust and trustworthiness. It’s up to you.
Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps build trust in organizations.