If the 1980s view of leadership was the strong and charismatic visionary, the 2010s vision is the empathetic and trustworthy servant. And study after study supports the idea that trust is one of the most important factors for leaders today. While establishing a trusting leadership relationship isn’t a key focus of great leaders in all situations (see our article on strategic leadership), with a stable team, it’s generally an important piece.

In “What Leadership Trust Really Means“, we discussed what trust is.  In this post, we focus on how to create trust.  We work with companies and their leaders to build leadership trust – both in how the company approaches its leaders and how leaders approach their teams. This is our list of “must dos” to foster a culture of trust.  

Help managers become better at the hard things

Trust and betrayal are flip sides of the same coin, and it’s the crucible of hard things where trust is developed or lost – how does a manager handle a difficult conversation, a stressful time or a conflict? These are the times where trust is most important, and where leaders are most likely to choose an untrustworthy approach.  Helping leaders develop the skills to manage difficult challenges reduces the chance that they will panic or react to their emotions in ways that undermine trust, and establishes expectations about how leaders treat employees.  Preparing leaders is the single most important piece of helping them build trusting relationship. 

Difficult conversations for example present many ways for leaders to act untrustworthy.  A leader who avoids a difficult conversation and doesn’t give an employee the opportunity to correct will leave the employee feeling betrayed.  On the other hand, a leader who personalizes or criticizes an employee in a difficult conversation will leave the employee feeling unfairly attacked and threatened.  And on the flip side, leaders who are skilled at difficult conversations will naturally engage in trustworthy behavior.

A concerted effort to help leaders develop these skills is necessary for engagement and trust, and is the best investment a company can make in engagement.

Give managers permission to focus on the employee

Valuing an employee means placing importance on helping or developing that employee. And that means sometimes putting the employee’s interests about the short-term interests of the company. 

But most leadership programs that address the basics of being a leader, such as delegation, feedback, goal setting and so on, have a limited view of what those activities are intended to accomplish – leadership programs mainly focus on the use of these tools to increase employee performance in the short-run. Improving performance is of course important, but it is not the only function those tools serve.

Feedback, for example, is a great way to build trust.  The quickest path to complete of a project is often for the manager to tell the employee how to do it, but better learning often results if leaders ask questions, test the employee’s strategy and give encouragement as the employee figures it out herself.  This type of feedback focuses on the employee’s growth, and while it sacrifices short-run performance, it builds greater skills and engagement in the long run. Junior employees often need more encouragement to avoid discouragement and frustration, and while feedback that focuses on the positive and is encouraging might not address all the tactical performance mistakes (and often requires the manager to do more herself), it is likely to build the employee’s confidence to keep learning and trying and build trust.

Similarly, great leaders often delegate stretch projects – these projects might be done more quickly by an experienced employee, but the leader sacrifices some efficiency to challenge the junior employee and give her an opportunity to grow.

Leadership programs should stress that it’s not only ok, but is required and expected, that leaders will sacrifice some short-term performance or efficiency to build trust and engagement. 

Empower the team and embrace failure – but don’t abandon

Talented people need to feel like their contributions are valued – they won’t trust a leader who doesn’t trust their abilities and judgment.  Trusting leaders have to be willing to let their teams do their jobs and perform.  Leaders have to give their team real responsibility.

A common problem that we see for leaders is (often unconsciously) giving difficult and challenging projects to only a small group on the team, leaving others feeling locked out. This group is usually experienced people who have a special relationship with the leader.  But the team members who are locked out say that they can’t learn, and can’t develop that kind of relationship, without the right projects.  These leaders often are surprised when they track their delegation, and the reasons for their delegation decisions. 

But giving responsibility, especially for difficult or stretch projects, will result in failure and mistakes.  Trustworthy leaders support teams through the delegation and project process, but also recognize that hard projects are, well, hard.  And learning requires mistakes.  These leaders support their teams on these projects and judge performance based on effort and progress rather than outcome.

Focus on team member growth

More than almost anything, employees want to be challenged and to grow.  Focusing on employee growth shows that the employee is valued.  But one-size-fits-all learning doesn’t work with today’s employees – they want a leader who takes the time to focus on their individual needs and goals.  This is much different than “go to a workshop” – team members need  tailored growth plans that reflect their growth opportunities and noals.  And most managers simply don’t know how to do develop employees (for themselves, much less for someone else). Helping leaders learn how to develop their team is one of the best investments companies can make in engagement and trust.

Require accountability – for yourself and others

But a critical element of safety is fairness – knowing that rewards and punishment will be doled out based on rules that everyone understands and accepts – for example, based on performance or effort or learning.  And a critical element of fairness is accountability.  Trustworthy leaders hold everyone accountable –without blaming for things that happen (such as occasional mistakes or growing pains).  And a critical piece of accountability is fairness – everyone is subject to the same rules, even the leader herself.

Focus on empathy

Many trust violations occur because managers don’t have the time or skill to understand how their behavior impacts their teams.  They don’t, in other words, put themselves in the other person’s shoes to recognize how the other person responds.  Building this perspective taking or empathy means not only taking the time and effort to think about the issue from the other person’s point of view, but also understanding how that person feels about things.

For example, people have different views about conflict and different styles for responding to it. Encouraging a leader who embraces conflict to consider how her team reacts to her yelling would be a first step.  But what if she says, as conflict embracers often do, that “a good fight clears the air, and there’s no way to resolve the issue without getting it all on the table”?  Obviously she also needs to understand that some people don’t respond to conflict like she does, and that what feels good to her might feel awful to them. 

Trust comes from leaders who both consider their team’s views and understand their team well enough to know how they feel and react to key things, and they tailor their leadership to each team member.

Stop talking about trust

That’s a strange suggestion following a point that focuses entirely on trust!  The point is, when we talk too much about trust, we create the impression that they are separate “to do”s, or things that happen outside the day-to-day relationship between manager and employee.  They don’t.  Trust and engagement have to develop naturally from the day-to-day work between leader and team.  Building trust and engagement, in other words, really means being a good manager and leader. 

Creating the impression that trust and engagement are separate from the day-to-day often leads managers to keep up the “same old same old” while trying to add other things to build engagement and trust, like team lunches or events.  But those things are just distractions – without changing how they lead, these managers won’t see improvement in engagement (and employees of course aren’t fooled – they know lipstick on a pig when they see it). 

That said, there are leadership approaches that are especially well suited to building engagement and trust, and leaders should understand what those approaches are and when to use them.  But they must be used as part of day-to-day leadership, not something added on top.

Todd Murtha is CEO of Careerwave. Todd is a former workplace psychologist and CEO of a 350-person internet company. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, coaching and technology.

 Careerwave’s technology-based leadership coaching service is effective and affordable enough to provide a coach to every manager. Whether you need to coach 1 leader or 100, and whether you need a full program or just an addition to your current program, we can build a solution for you. To learn more, contact us at info@careerwave.me, or visit careerwave.me.

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