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Building Trust: A How-To for Leaders at All Levels

Posted by Darleen DeRosa February 20, 2018

AdobeStock_28454150-559769-editedLeadership is not just about executing strategies or even instituting change in an organization. One of the most important skills that leaders at any level can possess is the ability to build trust; not just with their direct reports, but with their boss, colleagues, customers, and suppliers.

If you’ve ever worked with someone you didn’t trust, you’re likely well aware of how much harder that can make it to get things done. Trust is the key ingredient for collaboration between team members. In fact, as noted in one study of 7,763 teams featured on NCBI, “findings confirm that intrateam trust is positively related to team performance, and has an above-average impact.”

But, how can leaders in an organization build trust with (and between) their teams and with other stakeholders? Some key strategies include:

  1. Mastering the Essential Elements of Trust

Trust is a combination of four different elements, including:

  • Credibility. The extent to which people believe someone has expertise and “speaks the truth.”
  • Reliability. The ability to follow through on commitments consistently over a long period of time. This element takes time to build, and relies on a person’s ability to not only keep to their promises, but to make the work they do visible to others.
  • Intimacy. The ability to communicate and empathize with others on a personal level to form close connections. Is also impacted by the person’s ability to be discreet with information and issues.
  • Self-Orientation. The extent to which an individual puts the best interests of others first. Someone who clearly has only their own self-interests at heart will have a harder time earning the trust of others.

Mastering each of these elements of trust helps ensure leaders gain commitment and buy-in, which increases engagement.

Some tips for mastering these elements are consistently practicing honest, open communication; making and keeping promises; being available for people; engaging in non-work conversations; and looking for shared goals.

  1. Recognizing Trust Issues

One of the first steps to fixing any problem is being able to correctly identify the problem in the first place. Some warning signs that there may be trust issues (whether they are with external stakeholders, between team members or between the team and the leader) include:

  • Deflecting Responsibility for Mistakes. On a team with low trust, team members will often shift blame to someone or something else rather than accept responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions.
  • Gossiping Behind Each Other’s Backs. Low-trust teams may have team members talking negatively about one another to their coworkers, but not to the person they’re talking about.
  • Lack of Interpersonal Interactions. When conversations are always “strictly business,” and team members don’t connect on a personal level, it can be a sign that the team’s members may not trust one another yet.
  • Focusing On Individual Goals Rather Than Group Goals. Teams with a low level of trust may see members focus on their own individual goals in an attempt to look “good” rather than supporting the goals that forward the interests of the group as a whole.

Once the issues has been identified, it is easier to take the appropriate steps to resolve them.

  1. Using Emotional Intelligence

A leader’s ability to recognize their own emotional state, as well as the emotional states of others around them, and then use that knowledge to cultivate relationships can be an indispensable tool for building trust.

Emotional intelligence can inform a leader’s decisions, helping them choose the best approach to use with team members, colleagues, and their own bosses to earn trust—and avoid making a faux pas that alienates others.

  1. Arranging Face-to-Face Meetings

When leaders need to build trust, one of the most effective solutions is to arrange a face-to-face meeting. These team-building activities can help individuals build relationships by letting them get to know one another and giving them opportunities to work together on an immediate, shared goal.

  1. Partnering Team Members

Aside from having team members work together in a face-to-face meeting, partnering people together for a work project can help build bonds of mutual trust. Rotating groups so that every person on the team has a chance to partner with everyone else can be effective for making sure people have a chance to get to know each other—building not only relationships, but a sense of credibility as people demonstrate their competence and expertise.

This can also help minimize silos that may form with team members in different geographic locations.

  1. Creating Goals That Encourage Teamwork and Celebrating Wins as a Group

Another effective trust-building measure is to establish shared goals that encourage people to work together. Clarifying how these goals are shared by all members of the group and how meeting these goals benefits everyone on the team can also help get everyone motivated.

Over time, as employees work together and celebrate their wins as a group, they’ll start to develop trust in one another as teammates who help one another—helping reinforce reliability and acknowledging the importance of demonstrating a low self-orientation.

These are just a few of the ways that leaders at all levels of an organization can build trust with (and between) their direct reports. Check out some of our case studies to see how we helped organizations build trust and improve collaboration among team members.


Topics: leadership skills, organizational development, training and development

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