How to Master the Art of Building Trust as a Leader

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Is building trust as a leader important? How do you demonstrate trustworthiness as a leader?

Building trust in your team is important because it lets you rely on others and feel that they have your best interest in mind. The trust you build will help facilitate an innovative culture in your team. Demonstrate trustworthiness by keeping confidence, being nonjudgmental, and respecting boundaries.

Read on to learn more about building trust as a leader.

Building Trust as a Leader

Building trust as a leader is essential to innovative cultures, because trust allows you to rely on others and feel that they have your best interests in mind, and to feel comfortable breaking the status quo or suggesting new ideas. However, as essential as this skill is, it’s rarely brought up in discussion. There’s a huge disconnect between how trustworthy you consider yourself and how trustworthy you consider others to be—but this disconnect is never addressed, for fear that doing so will cause an emotional reaction in the “less trustworthy” person. 

Brave leaders understand the importance of recognizing the trustworthiness of their team members, and vice versa, so they don’t shy away from having conversations about trust. However, these conversations don’t speak directly to a team member’s trustworthiness, as it’s a touchy topic and usually prompts a defensive response. Instead, brave leaders talk about trust by discussing the behaviors that demonstrate trustworthiness. Attaching behaviors to the concept of trust accomplishes two goals:

  • Firstly, as with values, behaviors can be modeled, taught, and evaluated. Problems with the vague concept of “trust” are hard to identify or improve. For example, imagine telling a team member, “I don’t trust you enough to join me on this project.” This will probably prompt a defensive reaction and doesn’t give them a way to improve. If you were to say, “There are several behaviors I’d like you to work on before taking on this sort of project” you avoid calling their trustworthiness into question and give them clear places for improvement.
  • Secondly, trustworthy behaviors are tangible proof against the idea that others are untrustworthy—you can identify your dependable team members and reward them with more meaningful work.

7 Trustworthy Behaviors to Look Out For 

The first step to building trust as a leader is to look out for the trustworthy behaviors your team members are demonstrating every day. Trust is built in small moments over time, not in grand gestures—trustworthy behaviors come in the form of small, continuous actions. There are seven behaviors that demonstrate trustworthiness:  

  1. Setting and respecting boundaries: You set boundaries and say no when it’s necessary, and you ask others about their boundaries when you’re not sure if something is okay or not. 
  2. Being reliable: You are aware of your abilities and your limits and clearly express them to others. You stick to your commitments and do what you say you will. 
  3. Staying accountable: You don’t cover up your mistakes or blame others for them—you take responsibility, apologize, and make it right. 
  4. Keeping confidence: You don’t share information that is not yours to give away. Keep in mind that you don’t need to directly betray someone’s trust in order to destroy their trust in you—if you are constantly spilling information that’s not yours to share, they will be less sure that they can trust you with their own information. 
  5. Acting with integrity: You do the right thing, even if it’s not the convenient choice—you stick to your values, even when it’s hard. 
  6. Being nonjudgmental: You don’t judge people that come to you to ask for help, and you are respectful of the ideas they put forward.
  7. Being generous with interpretations of others’ intent: You always assume positive intent when interpreting a situation, or the actions and words of team members

Being generous with interpretations of others’ intent is especially important to the process of building trust as a leader, because it forces you to examine how your leadership might be the root of your team members’ untrustworthy behaviors. It’s easy to assume negative intent when a team member doesn’t deliver on a task, doesn’t stick to a commitment, or otherwise falls short. You assume that they don’t care enough, or they’re trying to undermine you, or they’re not right for the task. However, when you approach these situations assuming positive intent—that is, asking yourself, “If they were trying their best, what got in their way?”—you expose a range of more generous reasons behind the problem. This thinking leads you to realize where you failed to set boundaries, gave unclear guidelines, asked a team member to do something outside of their authority, and so on. 

The process of assuming positive intent goes a long way toward building trust as a leader, in both directions. When you realize your mistake and subsequently set better guidelines, fill in knowledge gaps, or revise your expectations to match your team member’s skill set, you demonstrate that your team member can trust you. They understand that they can speak up when tasked with something they can’t accomplish, that you’ll push them to grow on in a way that aligns with their abilities, and that they won’t be blamed for results out of their control. Additionally, these revised expectations, boundaries, and guidelines will allow your team member to deliver on their tasks reliably, reinstating your trust in their abilities and commitment. 

Imagine that you had an intern who didn’t finish an ad mockup in time for your marketing presentation. In response, you quickly assumed she had bad time management skills. However, once you took a step back and assumed that she was trying her best, you realized that your guidelines weren’t clear and she had to run around all day getting answers from different departments. Furthermore, you said “no rush” in your email to her to be polite, and she had no way to know that wasn’t quite true. On the next project, you spend some one-on-one time with her to clarify guidelines, answer questions, and give a hard deadline. With full, clear information she’s able to deliver, on time.

How to Master the Art of Building Trust as a Leader

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Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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