I’ve seen and worked with a lot of good leaders over my career in higher education and non-profit sectors as a consultant. These leaders were mission driven, knowledgeable about their industry, and had a vision for where their organization was going and a sense of how to get there. However, the GREAT leaders I’ve encountered stood out from the crowd by what they did not do: Great leaders never try to earn anyone’s trust.
This may sound absurd. “Eric, are you seriously suggesting that inspiring leaders don’t want people to trust them?” Of course not. As Patrick Lencioni points out in Five Dysfunctions of Teams, the most foundational cause of team dysfunction is a lack of trust among team members.
But if you are a leader and you believe that if you act in just such a way you will “earn” the trust of your team, you are discounting the agency your team members have to make their own decisions about who is trustworthy based upon their own criteria (which may differ from yours), and you will struggle to create the conditions that could result in trusting relationships.
It happens all the time.
- The Vice President who desperately wants people to like him, so much so that he shares information inappropriately with a group to show them how much he trusts them. Behind his back, the group gets upset that he would share such information and wonders what else he is saying, and to whom he is saying it.
- The director who has gotten into a habit of continuously praising staff and avoiding conversations that are difficult or challenging, thinking this a way of getting them to like and trust him. Staff quickly realize they aren’t getting the full story, and eventually stop trusting the director’s judgment.
- A team has had past supervisors who were extremely poor supervisors who emotionally abused the staff. Based on this experience, this team was exceedingly reluctant to trust the next supervisor, even though they weren’t abusive at all. After all, aren’t all supervisors alike?
So how can leaders encourage trust in teams?
Great leaders create conditions for trust in a team and know that team members will make their own decisions about who to trust. In the Harvard Business Review article “Begin with Trust,” authors Frei and Morriss identify three drivers that tend to result in people deciding to trust you.
- Authenticity: An authentic leader shows their team members who they really are. They are bringing their whole selves to work. They are caring and candid with their team members and strive to speak their truths as much as possible. They don’t pretend to be anyone they are not, nor do they pretend to know things they don’t. They show themselves to others as no more or less than exactly who they are.
- Empathy: An empathic leader cares about their team members and their success. These leaders listen deeply to their employees and try to understand what the world looks like from their perspective. They are intensely curious about the lived experiences of their team members, and they make the time to engage with their employees. They never tell others how to feel and never communicate that the leader matters more than the other team members.
- Logic: A logical leader demonstrates sound judgment and communicates that judgment in a clear, accessible manner. The leader will not only come to sound conclusions, but they can clearly articulate the various steps they took to arrive at those conclusions (including showing how they used their authenticity and empathy to understand the perspectives of others). They never try to obfuscate or gaslight, and indeed are grateful when people challenge their logic because it could result in even better results.
So…what will you do next to create conditions where, hopefully, people will decide to give you their trust?
If you want some assistance moving from trying to earn trust to creating relationships based on authenticity, logic, and empathy, we would love to work with you.