It’s a basic necessity for good relationships, so it makes sense that trust is a key contributor to a leader’s effectiveness. Think about it… Would you follow someone you don’t trust? The trust that is critical to being an effective leader involves much more than honesty, though. Leaders usually act a little shocked—act as if their character has been assaulted—when I ask whether people trust them. They hear the question as something akin to, “Do you lie to people?” I ask leaders whether they are trusted so that they will focus on the following key questions. The answers to which all need to be, “Yes.”
Do people trust that:
- You have their best interests at heart?
- You will follow through on your commitments?
- You know what you’re doing?
- You will make sound decisions?
- You’ll keep your cool?
- You’ll be honest with them?
Recent psychological research provides a key pointer toward what leaders can do to earn the trust of the people who work with them: people begin to trust you when they see you demonstrate self-control, i.e. avoid doing what is not beneficial and do more of what is, even if there will be a little pain involved. People look for clues about your trustworthiness in all that you say and do. If you tell everyone you are on a diet, but snack on the office goodies routinely, people will file that away as evidence that you either don’t mean what you say or you don’t have the strength to make hard choices…neither behavior being very leader-like, of course. Imagine if you also then tiptoe around a difficult team member who is not carrying her weight on projects. Once again, others will conclude you can’t make tough decisions for the ultimate benefit of the team.
Earning trust can take time, but it’s possible to speed things along a bit if you put your mind to it. If you’re in leadership, and wondering what proactive steps you can take to earn others’ trust sooner rather than later, try out some of these:
- Seek out information that can answer questions or ease concerns your team has expressed and pass that information along to them.
- Start and end meetings on time, and if you must deviate from the stated agenda, make it clear why.
- Take advantage of opportunities to advocate for your employees with others in the company.
- Pay close attention to what you tell people you will do—even the trivial things—and do them or tell them why you can’t.
- Keep a lid on your emotions when reacting to news, situations, etc. Besides not throwing tantrums in the office, we’re talking about keeping your less-measured editorial comments about people or events to yourself.
- Admit when you don’t know something and demonstrate a commitment to learn it.
Obviously, none of this is rocket science; you just have to decide you’re going to take these steps. After all, building trust is as simple as staying away from the cookies when you’re on a diet.
Dr. Fish is a consulting psychologist whose writing and work focus exclusively on helping individuals and teams lead more effectively. Her firm, Fish Executive Leadership Group, LLC, counts among its clients everything from Fortune 50 corporations to small, privately-held professional service firms.
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