If trust is something you earn, then it only makes sense that becoming a trustworthy leader requires work. Luckily, extensive research and literature on the subject have given us a roadmap for the journey.
The Benefits of Building Trust
Paul J. Zak, CEO of Immersion Neuroscience and founding professor of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has performed extensive research on trust in the workplace.
In 2016, Zak and his colleagues surveyed 1,095 working adults in the U.S. about the levels of trust they had in their organizations. Without knowing the purpose of the experiment, participants answered questions about their experience at their organizations. Those who worked for a “high-trust” organization self-reported the following:
- 106% more energy
- 76% more engagement
- 74% less stress
- 50% higher productivity
- 40% less burnout
- 26% higher life satisfaction
- 13% fewer sick days
This study clearly showed that trustworthiness plays a crucial role in employees’ well-being, satisfaction, and productivity. But what ingredients make a trustworthy leader?
The Trust Triangle
According to Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss, two leadership experts at Harvard Business Review, trust has three “drivers” — authenticity, logic, and empathy — that make up what they call the “trust triangle” (see below).
When trust is lost, it can almost always be traced back to a breakdown in one of these drivers. “To build trust as a leader,” Frei and Morriss write, “you first need to figure out which driver you “wobble” on.”
To determine where your trust wobble may be, ask yourself these questions:
- Are the people around me seeing an authentic version of myself?
- When I make decisions, am I doing what I can to help others see the logic behind them?
- Do I sense that the people around me feel that I care about their well-being?
Even if you answered ‘yes’ to all three, you can determine your trust “wobble” by reflecting on whether one question presented more of a challenge than the others.
If your wobble is authenticity…
Try asking yourself: How is my work persona different from how I behave around my friends and family? If you find a noticeable difference, ask yourself why. Unless there is a clear payoff for masking part of your authentic self — like if you feel uncomfortable being open about parts of your identity — then consider whether you could afford to show more of your real self around your team.
If your wobble is logic…
Consider how you could support more of your ideas and decisions with evidence (are there statistics you can cite that back up a decision?). While finding evidence, you may gain knowledge that will help your decision-making in the long run. When the application of logic yields positive results, you become more credible and, therefore, trustworthy as a leader
If your wobble is empathy…
You may benefit from paying closer attention to how you behave in group settings. For example, check your body language; if you appear disengaged while someone is speaking in a meeting, your team may think you only care about the agenda when you are the one speaking. When employees see a boss as self-focused, they lose trust in them.
Overarching Tips on How to Build Trust
According to the American Psychological Association, to establish trust as a leader and minimize stress and anxiety, leaders can do the following:
- Manage stress: Employees look to their leaders to maintain calm and be deliberate in their own decisions. This doesn’t mean leaders can’t experience their own emotions and anxiety, but strong leaders take stock of their emotions before reacting in a way that could rattle their team.
- Share information with empathy and optimism: Every leader must guide their team through moments of uncertainty. For employees to trust that their leader can provide a path ahead, they must first feel that they are heard and validated.
- Use credibility to build trust: The APA defines credibility as a combination of expertise and dependability. Credibility does not mean knowing all the answers; if a leader is uncertain about something, it is best to own that and defer to other experts.
- Be honest and transparent: When a team is met with a challenge, a trustworthy leader delivers news candidly, making sure not to sugarcoat or give a false perception that everything is okay when it is not.
- Provide regular communications: Consistent, reliable communication assures employees that they are in the loop, whereas feeling in the dark makes anxiety worse because it allows space for people to imagine the worst.
- Provide a forum for feedback: When a leader asks for feedback from their employees, they are demonstrating a desire to listen. Opening ourselves up to potential criticism can be nerve-wracking, but when we set aside our pride in favor of our team’s needs, we become more trustworthy.
- Be a role model: A leader whose behavior is not in line with what they ask of others is not trustworthy. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, great leaders did not hesitate to follow safety protocols issued by the government and their organizations.
How can we expect others to trust us if we don’t trust ourselves? This question seems like a no-brainer, but, when we step into a leadership role, we often forget to look inward. Especially when faced with obstacles like self-doubt and imposter syndrome, we can find it hard to trust ourselves.
The good news is:
By confronting our strengths and weaknesses, we are practicing authenticity;
By consulting external sources to improve our leadership, we are practicing logic;
By being patient with ourselves as we learn, we are practicing empathy.
And all three build trust. When we put in the work to build trust with our team and ourselves, we can make a lasting impact by empowering those around us to realize their full potential.
What better way to lead?