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How leadership trust guides high-performing teams

February 22, 2022 - 13 min read


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What is trust in leadership?

Why does trust matter in leadership?

How do leaders build trust with employees?

How to build trust as a leader

Start building more trust in leadership

Leadership trust is a must-have for managers and other leaders. Working in a high-trust work environment improves employee engagement, well-being, and psychological safety. And all these areas impact employee turnover. So if you’re looking to increase employee retention, developing employee trust is an excellent place to start.

But building trust as a leader can be a gradual and challenging process.

The good news is that you can consistently build trust with employees and establish yourself as a trustworthy leader. We will take a closer look at the importance of trust-building, and we’ll discuss some ways to build trust. But first, let’s take a look at what leadership trust is and why it’s so important.

What is trust in leadership?

Trust is earned currency in every relationship. It builds human connection and provides the foundation for stability, meaning, and growth. 

In return, team members who trust their leaders tend to be more forthcoming, loyal, and often more trusting of the organization as a whole.

Characteristics that build trust in leadership

Effective leadership requires a range of skills and capabilities. And trust is the glue that binds them all.

These skills are even more important for leaders now.

The pandemic kicked off a new era of constant change. And change often challenges trust. To manage this new normal, outstanding leadership demands a blend of leadership qualities and styles. 

The most trusted leaders must now inspire, embody, and encourage the following:

  • Greatness 
  • Ingenuity 
  • Teamwork 
  • Agility 
  • Resiliency


Why does trust matter in leadership?

Recent studies confirm that building and maintaining working relationships in a high-trust organization benefits all parties –– employees, leadership, and the business. According to Paul J. Zak, author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies, people employed by high-trust companies report the following:

  • A 60% increase in career satisfaction 
  • A 50% increase in productivity 
  • A 66% increase in team unity 

When trust is questionable or missing, however, these areas all suffer. Job performance slows down, employee engagement is low, and turnover is high. 

Therefore, trust in leadership is crucial to a healthy workplace and sustainable shared success.

How do leaders build trust with employees?

We’ve established the importance of trust in leadership positions. But how does a leader embody or encourage trust? 

There is no simple one-size-fits-all answer. But there are several essential leadership skills and actions that help build trust in the workplace. 

The first two leadership skills to master are self-awareness and empathy. Great leaders understand themselves and their employees as people. This humanistic approach to leadership leaves the ego at the door, making space for open communication and transparency. 

This enhanced self-awareness also lets trusted leaders assess their decisions and reduce biases

Additionally, these leaders embrace learning opportunities that develop these soft skills. They understand how fundamental they are to building employee trust.

Now let’s further examine how these two primary skills feed into the other leadership skills required to build trust.

There are several factors required to develop, earn, and maintain trust. This is true for both individual leader trust and organizational trust. Most sources agree that influencing factors include:

Each element may get evaluated separately or even situationally. However, a reliably balanced combination is indeed what fosters trust.


Behavioral elements of trust

A recent Harvard Business Review study outlined the three behavioral elements of trust. It indicated that essential contributing factors include:

  1. The ability to create and maintain positive, reciprocal team relationships
  2. The demonstration of expertise and judgment
  3. Consistency of both word and deed 

Yet another study suggests that building leadership and trust is a three-pronged approach. It consists of ability trust, integrity trust, and benevolence trust, in equal proportions. 

When we look at the characteristics needed to build these three types of trust, we again see blended criteria. Competence, honesty, and relationship-building make a repeat performance in the factors listed below.

  • Competence 
  • Honesty 
  • Transparency
  • Clear communication
  • Relationship-building 

How do you determine which factors determine organizational loyalty and leadership trust? 

Let’s take a look at what one organization did. 

Today, Google consistently ranks as one of the best places to work. And it was not by accident.

Several years ago, Google realized that hiring brilliant people and allowing them to do their work might not be enough. 

Up to this point, they had only anecdotal data signaling talented people were leaving the organization. They had an inkling that being a part of Google just wasn’t enough for each employee. 

A designated team collected analyzed large amounts of data from performance reviews and employee engagement surveys. Their goal was to better understand what people valued most and expected from both leadership and the organization.

Google leveraged its own algorithms to reach informed conclusions from these surveys. They now had the data to support their hunch, and they were right –– the organization was suffering from a lack of trust in leadership.

Google recognized that understanding and responding to this information would positively impact engagement and retention. 

There were eight primary initiatives that the organization would need to focus on to strengthen its levels of trust: 

As a result, Google established formal leadership competencies to embody the eight behaviors. They also launched a widespread leadership development plan to evolve their organizational culture. 

Google recognized that leadership trust is an earned currency. They also learned that building trust in leadership is a culmination of several contributing factors. Additionally, the company chose to prioritize and take action to better perform in these areas. They recognize the overall value and importance of trust in the workplace.


How to build trust as a leader

Let’s look at four strategies you can use to build leadership trust in the workplace.

1. Treat people fairly and explain the background behind changes

Communication is essential to any business. Ideally, it is two-way, authentic, and consistent. A trustworthy leader inspires, informs, and empowers with their words. 

Additionally, messaging should be engaging and targeted so that all recipients understand expectations. 

When communicating change or uncertainty, transparency is often a healthy remedy for mistrust. Leaders at high-trust organizations explain the appropriate rationale behind business decisions and directives. 

2. Involve more people in the decision-making process

Change usually becomes uncomfortable when understanding or appreciation is low. 

So, wherever possible, try including others in the decision and change process. 

Involving others helps build trust among the entire team by distributing the decision-making power. It also acknowledges more voices that would otherwise go unheard.

3. Connect people to the bigger picture

People often like to connect their contributions to the bigger picture. This helps them understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’ When they feel included, their trust, engagement, and commitment naturally increase. 

When it comes to delivery, communication should always be bi-directional. Trustworthy leaders listen more than they speak. Of course, words are not enough, though. Leaders must also model the way forward, demonstrating the behaviors they expect from others. 

4. Show members the company has their back and supports them

There is an old saying credited to Teddy Roosevelt: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” And while competence does impact trust in leadership, empathy and understanding are often more significant. 

Consider the other common factors that foster trust in leadership. These include fairness, competence, follow-through, and compassion. When business leaders embrace these factors through equity and impartiality, they help ensure everyone feels valued, appreciated, and connected.


Start building more trust

Leadership trust is a must-have for anyone in a position of authority.

Now you know why it’s so important. Plus, now that you have a handful of strategies for building leadership trust in your own workplace, it’s time to put them into practice.

If you’re struggling with building trust, check out BetterUp personalized coaching. We help build leaders that accelerate team performance and engagement. And we can help provide you with the skills and mindsets needed to perform at your peak.

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Published February 22, 2022

Rick Reddington, MS, PCC

BetterUp Fellow Coach & PCC

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