Leading with Trust: Principles and Practice

A Watson Wyatt Worldwide study of 12,750 U.S. workers in all major industries found that companies with high trust levels outperform their low-trust counterparts by 186 percent.

In a 2011 Maritz survey, only seven percent of more than 90,000 employees worldwide said they trust their senior leaders to look out for their best interests. It’s not just a problem for rank-and-file employees. Roughly half of all managers distrust their leaders, according to a Golin Harris survey of 450 executives at 30 global companies.

Despite the importance of trust, few leaders give it the focus it deserves. Misunderstood as a nebulous “feeling,” trust is earned through consistent, positive behaviors practiced over time.

Two of the best books on this important topic are:

  1.  The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2001), by leadership consultants David MaisterCharles Green and Robert Galford
  2. The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, 2011), by Charles H. Green and Andrea P. Howe.


Trustworthy leaders practice and master five key abilities:

a. Listen Well

Most leaders use their listening skills to gather information. But listening is a critical tool for connecting with others, building relationships and strengthening influence. You must pay attention, be empathic and let others know you understand them.

b. Partner

Partnership involves collaborating (not competing), committing to fairness, balancing assertiveness and cooperation, dealing with disagreements, and sharing responsibility for successes and failures.

c. Improvise

Things don’t always go as planned. Glitches and challenges can be “moments of truth” that require rational and emotional flexibility. Leaders are stretched at times, but your ability to handle moments of truth determines your trustworthiness.

d. Take Risks

Trust cannot exist without taking risks and leaving your comfort zone. Every risk you take builds trust. Leaders must be courageous enough to overcome their fears and confront challenging situations with curiosity and authenticity.

e. Know Yourself

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses allows you to delegate and collaborate more effectively. Work with a trusted mentor or executive coach to identify blind spots that impede self-knowledge.


The traits that make you a strong leader may inadvertently interfere with building self-awareness and trusting relationships. Consider these common blind spots:

  • You don’t realize the extent of your need to be liked. How often do you avoid saying or doing something because it might be unpopular?
  • You’ve underestimated the intensity of your internal drive to achieve. Results-oriented leaders habitually move too quickly from fully listening to pushing for commitments.
  • You overlook your discomfort with feeling unprepared. Leaders aren’t clairvoyant and don’t have all the answers. This uneasiness may prevent you from engaging in collaboration and depending on others.


Four key components contribute to your overall trustworthiness.

  1. Credibility (the realm of words): Our level of expertise and how we present our knowledge determine our credibility. When we study facts and complete analytical research, we build up our credibility. We boost credibility in our business conversations by:a. Developing formidable expertise in our industry
    b. Staying current with industry trends and business news
    c. Offering our point of view (when we have one)
    d. Being willing to say “I don’t know” when this is an honest answer
    e. Expressing passion for ourareas of expertise
    f. Communicating with self-assurance (a firm handshake, direct eye contact, a confident air)
  2. Reliability (the realm of actions)Do you fulfill the promises you make? Do you deliver on your commitments? Reliability is built over time, but it can be destroyed in a second.Boost your reliability with consistency, predictability and certainty:

    a. State expectations up front. Regularly reinforce them.
    b. Make lots of small promises, and consistently follow through onthem.
    c. Be prompt.
    d. Communicate if you fall behind.
    e. Take responsibility for delays.
    f. Respect organizational norms and culture.

  3. Intimacy (the realm of emotions): It’s easy to keep a professional distance in our interactions, but the “all-business” leader rarely gets ahead. The problem with intimacy isthat the word carries a connotation of closeness that isn’t appropriate at work. In reality, intimacy refers to your willingness to share appropriate information about the things that truly matter.Boost intimacy by sharing personal experiences and values. Learn to:

    a. Listen beyond the words. Pick up on tone, emotion and mood. Acknowledge these elements aloud.
    b. Tell people what you really appreciate about them. Don’t keep it to yourself!
    c. Use people’s names in conversations.
    d. Share something personal about yourself. This makes you more human and interesting.

  4. Self-Orientation(the realm of motives): Without doubt, we are all self-motivated to a degree. But we also want what’s best for others, the company or the team. How often do you speak about yourself: your wants, needs, goals and priorities? Are you oriented toward finding win-win solutions that take others’ needs into account?When trust breaks down, excess self-orientation is usually to blame. You can lower your level of self-orientation in relationships by:

    a.Taking time to find the best solutionSharing time, resources and ideas
    b. Asking lots of questions from a place of curiosity and figuring out your partner’s definition of success
    c. Negotiating for a true win-winListening even when it’s uncomfortable to be silent
    d. Speaking hard truths, even when it’s awkward
    e. Giving your partner the credit for ideas and achievements

Understanding your quirks and weaknesses allows you to rein in your ego and increase your trustworthiness.