Women meetingGood 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. 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 usually an important piece (learn more on building leadership trust in our next article).

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?  Unfortunately it’s not that easy.  Leadership “trust” means much more.

Employees trust leaders when the employees believe that they matter to the leader and will be treated fairly.  It’s the employee’s sense that “we’re in this team together”, that the leader respects and cares about the employee, and that the company will value the employee if the employee values the company.  Google’s Project Oxygen research on what makes a great leader calls this “psychological safety”, and Doug Conant, who took Campbell’s Soup from the lowest engagement ever recorded for a Fortune 500 company to one of the highest, phrased it as “we need to tangibly demonstrate to our employees that we value their agenda before we can ever expect them to value our agenda.”


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

Seth Godin


Trust, at its core, has two main components – safety and value.  A safe environment is one where team members are safe from unfair, undeserved or unnecessary attacks or mistreatments.  And on the other hand, rewards like promotions, recognition and pay raises are given based on fair standards that everyone understands, like performance on measures that everyone knows about.  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. 

A valuing environment is one where team members feel that their personal success and well-being are important to the leader and the company, and their contribution is appreciated and matters.  This doesn’t mean that companies have to coddle employees or lavish them with perks (to the contrary, grand perks like free meals and in-house yoga generally don’t have much impact on engagement).  Engaged employees expect to have their success valued and to be treated fairly, not to be served.

The tactics of building trust can be thought of as pieces of these two broad categories.  For example, Paul Zak’s model of organization trust can be sorted like this:


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


  • 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” (Value), “empowers team and does not micromanage” (Safety), “supports career development and discusses performance” (Value), and “creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being” (Safety).

Some of these pieces are non-negotiable.  But others can be mixed and matched based on your company and culture, the leader’s personality and style and the team to achieve the goals of Safety and Value.  Great leaders are effective at doing this mixing to build a culture of trust.

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.

 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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