There have been scores of books, blogs, and articles written on the importance of trust in leadership. Most experts, authors, gurus and thinkers agree that without trust you cannot lead. You may be able to herd,or coerce, or corral, or even intimidate, but you cannot lead. And while leaders everywhere would probably agree that this is true, there are very few who know how to go about defining and building this much needed trust. I say defining and building because it’s almost impossible to build, create, or work towards something we can not define. If we relegate trust to that set of things that are simply up to others and we have no influence on them, then we are left to hope it happens. Hope by itself is not a great strategy for a business or for becoming a more effective leader. How we define trust has everything to do with how we set out to create or influence it.
There are probably thousands of definitions for the word itself. Webster’s dictionary goes with: belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc. I don’t think many people would dispute this statement, but it doesn’t necessarily help us create a path toward building trust. Consider this definition: Trust happens when people believe we have their best interest at heart.If we think others are engaged in genuinely trying to help us, we listen and think about their words differently, even when we initially disagree with them. We are quicker to accept information from others that we think has some of our agenda in mind, not just someone else’s. I also think this definition helps us see a path to building trust with any individual, regardless of our experience, our skill, our history, or theirs. We then start to ask the question; How do I demonstrate to someone that I genuinely have their best interest at heart?
There is not much that demonstrates an interest in someone more than asking them questions. Especially questions about their goals, their achievements, and their philosophy on things. If we don’t know what’s important to them we can’t possibly have that in mind when we work with them. I have seen leaders fire people because they were a lousy fit for a job or a company and actually gain trust in the process. Even the firing was about helping that person find what they really wanted to do and how they really wanted to contribute to something because the current job was not the right one. They simply refused to allow that person to stay in a job and be less than they were capable of. If the person believes what you are doing is helpful to them and the things they care about, even actions that affect them negatively in the short term can build trust. But you have to know what they care about first and to do that, leaders have to ask the right questions.
People cannot trust you or believe they understand your motives unless they know you. So many times as leaders we work to portray the things we want people to see and hide the things we don’t. I’m not suggesting that we overshare here and start airing our dirty laundry, but I am saying that we have to create opportunities for people to know us well enough to trust us and to trust that we are the kind of person who would want to help them. That’s often one of the biggest challenges we have as leaders; letting people get to know what kind of person we are and sometimes even what our biggest difficulties are. In the absence of that understanding, people will judge our intentions and motivations based on their own assumptions, and often this will lead to mistrust, not more trust. Some people haven’t had very many people invest in them along the way and so they have to know that you are different in order to believe you would want to.
There is a strong connection between someone believing you genuinely want to help them and the understanding that you have made some of the same mistakes or had some similar experiences. Often, I may not let someone coach or lead me very effectively unless I can share some of my own challenges with them and it’s hard to admit mistakes to people you believe have never made any. There has to be a connection and some common ground for people to trust us. Telling stories and sharing mistakes, how they challenged you, what you learned, and what you did differently to avoid them helps people relate to your world and see how it could connect with their own.
Becoming a more effective leader is not an easy thing to do. But even if we do the skill based and tactical parts of leadership well, people still won’t follow if there is not a strong foundation of trust. I have known leaders who were trustworthy, but not trusted. While trust is only one piece of how we create influence, it is critical if we want anyone to challenge their own thinking or reach more of their potential because of our interaction with them. Ultimately, it is not enough for us to believe our mission as a leader is about helping others accomplish and achieve more, they have to believe it as well.
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