The Hard Truth on Trust

Leaders, trust starts at the top

Back Web Only Jul 8, 2015 By Tania Fowler

Trust is often at the heart of what goes right and what goes wrong. Strong trust leads to constructive conflict while poor trust invites elephants into the room. When a company has a culture of trust,  people keep their commitments. In its absence, team members become unreliable and productivity drops.

Let’s take a step back. Every spring, I anticipate hearing the first thunderous roar of the Blue Angels in the sky above our house. I run outside to see the nimble little planes twist, turn, dive and loop I love the penetrating sound of those engines as they rumble above, just wings apart.  

What I admire so much (aside from their highly tuned skill)is the astounding level of trust contained in each cockpit. As a person who consults on team development, I wish more teams out there could pull together the level of trust the Blue Angels have. At a workshop I gave a few years ago, I used the Blue Angels as an example of a high-trust, high-performing team. One  astute participant pointed out that the Blue Angels were a homogeneous team with one like-minded mission and set of skills.  True, the Blue Angels’ urgent and compelling mission helps focus their attention — but they cultivate that trust on the ground long before takeoff.. They know what’s at stake in every flight, and earthbound teams would do well to prioritize theirs goals with a similar urgency.

Building trust is hard work. In workshops, when I ask people to define trust, they generally say trust comes from knowing that someone cares about you, that they have your back and that you can rely on them. Trust is about reliability, a consistent pattern of behavior for follow-through that gives someone a reputation of credibility and helps people feel safe. Listening and having empathy and the ability to see multiple perspectives builds trust too.

Related: More Asking, Less Telling — How you talk to your employees matters

Poor trust on a team is never owned by just one person. But, it cannot be understated:  The leader of the team owns the team’s level of trust — that is the hard truth. Leaders rarely underestimate the level of trust on their teams. In fact, it’s the opposite: Leaders almost always think their team’s level of trust is better than it is. The leader is the person in charge of keeping trust a priority and then helping to build it. But how can you build trust?

First, assess honestly if what you are doing is in alignment with what you are saying or asking. The people who report to you are watching you closely, and if they determine that you are talking a different game than you are playing, you will lose them. I once did a series of workshops about team communication for a group of leaders at all levels of management. The top-tier leaders hired me to put this workshop together, and they attended… sort of. They came in and out of the room, took phone calls, made phone calls and had power lunches away from the team. They wanted better team communication, but they didn’t see themselves as part of the problem. These leaders were out of alignment, and their team noticed and complained.

Second, make yourself visible. Get out of your office and check in with employees. Ask them how they are doing, whether they need help, what kind of ideas they have. Ask them about the business at hand.  You can build trust by letting employees know you are genuinely interested in their lives and their jobs and by acting on suggestions in some way. Some leaders push back and say, “I have work to do. I don’t have time for checking in just to build some phantom, hopeful trust.” To which I counter, “How will you successfully build trust if you stay in your office not talking to the people tasked with so much of the work?

Third, as the leader, never allow people to come to you simply to complain about co-workers. Instead, ask your employees what they can do about the interpersonal problem at hand and help coach them through the challenges. Leaders often become the inadvertent, if well-meaning, parent being played by siblings for favored-child status. This means you need to get comfortable talking with people about uncomfortable, potentially messy conflicts you would rather ignore. But ignoring those issues ensures a spiraling set of problems that will find their way back to you, only by then they will have grown. You, as leader, own that so you better have some solid communication tools in your kit or conflict will thrive. Conflict, poorly handled, can kill whatever trust you are trying to build. Leadership is about way more than just the actual work you’ve been hired to do.  It’s messy and requires lots of sacrifices.

Related: Directing versus Informing — The Dual-Language Quagmire

So what makes your team able to soar, like the Blue Angels, while others just sputter? What does it take for a team of people, interdependent and mutually accountable to operate with such a high degree of trust even without the threat of life or death? Active  leaders who are confident and curious enough to handle whatever arises. If they don’t know answers, they seek help. Your team is watching. Show them you are interested in their thoughts and lives and that you will coach them through issues so they can grow. If they see you are reliable in your actions, they will feel safe and do a great job. That’s the hard truth.

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Quality communication goes far beyond organizational structures, clear directives and efficient systems. Time and again, I’ve watched highly effective teams crumble due to a lack of effective dialogue. And that’s because the most successful way to engage and improve your company is not by talking. It’s by listening.

Apr 2, 2015 Tania Fowler