Trust can be developed, but you have to know where to start

Good luck finding an article on leadership today that doesn’t talk about trust – the 1980s view of the strong and charismatic leader has been replaced in the 2010s by the empathetic and trustworthy leader. And study after study supports the idea that trust is one of the most important factors for leaders today – high trust is associated with better team performance, more willingness to take risks and be creative, lower attrition, higher satisfaction, greater “organizational citizenship behaviors” (voluntary and non-required activity that helps the company, going the extra mile when it’s not required) and lower “counterproductive work behaviors (actions to hurt the company like theft, sabotage, substance abuse, delinquency, etc.). While establishing a trusting leadership relationship isn’t a key focus of great leaders in all situations (see our article on strategic leadership replacing one-size-fits-all leadership), with a stable team, it’s an important piece Our next article in this series addresses what you need to be a trusted leader and our last article provides advice on building leadership trust.

But what exactly does a trustworthy leader look like?  When many of us think of trustworthy, we think of someone who does what they say they’re going to do.  Is that all that a trustworthy leader needs to do?  The good news is that trust is one of the most researched topics in work psychology.  The bad news is that organizational trust is not that easy.  Leadership “trust” means much more.

There actually are three kinds of trust that workers can feel for a company or a leader.

  • Ability Trust -Trust that the leader has the skill, ability, judgment and the motivation to get the job done, as well as the the interpersonal skills, personality and general wisdom needed to succeed in an organization.  In thinking about a leader, this is the factor of whether that leader knows what they are doing, can lead the team in a good direction and, with the right effort, can help the team succeed. You may not like or get along well with that person, but if you want to move the needle on a project, you trust that this is the person to do it.
  • Integrity Trust – Trust that the leader has sound moral and ethical principles that they follow, are fair and treat people in predictable and unbiased ways, and are reliable.  It includes things like fairness, justice, consistency, and promise fulfillment.
  • Benevolence  Trust -Trust that is based on emotional ties between the leader and employee in a relationship that results from the shared care and concern, the feeling that the leader has employees’ best interest at heart and cares about them beyond their value as workers.  Leaders high in benevolence trust are believed to want to do good for the employee, apart from any profit motive or selfish motive to have the team perform well.  It includes things like loyalty, openness, caring, or supportiveness. 

It is critical to realize that ALL THREE kinds of trust are important – each separately are associated with the good thins that come from trust.  In other words, a leader can’t make up for a lack of benevolence trust by being very high in ability trust.  All three must be present.  And lacking benevolence trust and integrity trust will undermine otherwise good leaders – research shows that otherwise good leaders who lack trust will perform much worse.


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A trusting environment, then, is one where employees believe their leader knows what she’s doing and how to lead the team to a good outcome, cares about them as people as well as workers, and is fair, dependeable and reliable, and they will be treated well and fairly.  A safe environment is one where team members are safe from unfair, undeserved or unnecessary attacks or mistreatments.  It’s one where there are rules (also known as “culture”) about how their leader treats them and how they treat each other, and those rules are fair and enforced.  If there are rules about not yelling at each other, then anyone who does is held accountable.  They know they will be treated fairly, well and with dignity. 


“Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.” 

Seth Godin


The tactics of building trust can be thought of as pieces of these broad categories.  In other words, leaders need to think about the advice they get on trust or leading and decide how it helps them build the types of trust.  For example, Paul Zak’s model of organization trust can be sorted like this (Zak’s model does not include ability trust, instead focusing on how leaders and employees work together):

Benevolence Trust:Better leaders

  • Recognize Excellence
  • Share Information Broadly
  • Intentionally Build Relationships
  • Be Authentic and Vulnerable

Integrity Trust:

  • Create Challenges
  • Delegate Generously
  • Enable Job Crafting
  • Facilitate Whole-Person Growth

And the leadership pieces from other approaches can, as well.  For example, Google’s research on great leaders focuses on “is a good coach” (Benevolence), “empowers team and does not micromanage” (Integrity), “supports career development and discusses performance” (Benevolence), and “creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being” (Benevolence).

That’s a long way from doing what you say you’ll do. And it means that developing trust is a lot harder – we must encourage leaders to think broadly about what they do that either fosters or undermines this kind of trust, and help them develop the skills needed to be trustworthy to their employees. How do companies and leaders build trust? We address building leadership trust in our next article.

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.

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