The 3 most effective ways to build trust as a leader

Based on data from 597 people, the best ways to build trust as a leader aren’t what you think they are.

How do you build trust as a leader? The answer seems intuitive enough.

For many of us, we hold company off-sites and run team-building activities. Informal lunches, monthly social get-togethers, and one-on-one meetings are part of how we build trust at work.

We also thank our team publicly and give employee recognition for a job well done. And, we strive to be transparent with company information during all-team meetings.

These are among the most popular ways to build trust because they work… Right?

Wrong.

To my surprise, in our survey we ran this past fall with 597 managers and employees, these three ways to build trust were in fact viewed as the least effective by employees.

Specifically, these were the 3 least effective ways to build trust as a leader:

Company retreats + team-building activities.

Only 1% of managers and employees who responded to the survey said that this was the most effective way to build trust. This is fascinating, given the amount of money and energy many companies spend planning company off-sites and team-building activities.

Thanking your team and giving recognition.

Only 4% of people said that this was the most effective to build trust in a team. While this shouldn’t imply you should never thank your team, it goes to show there’s more to building trust than doling out compliments.

Being transparent with company info.

Only 10% of managers and employees stated that this was the most effective way to build trust in a team. No doubt that transparency is important in a company – if you want your team to be able to make the same decisions as you, they need access to the same information as you. But when it comes to building trust, perhaps it’s not as effective as we’d imagined it to be.

Now, just because these methods are not viewed as “most effective” for building trust at work doesn’t mean you should stop doing these things, all together. Rather, they may accomplish other worthy goals in the organization. (For example, being transparent with company info is helpful for alignment in a team.)

So what is most effective when it comes to building trust?

From our survey, here’s what 597 managers and employees said were the most effective ways to build trust:

#1: Show vulnerability as a leader.

Twenty-eight percent of people said that being vulnerable and admitting your shortcomings as a leader was the most effective way to build trust. For both employees and managers in the survey, they remarked how being vulnerable with your weaknesses and mistakes demonstrated empathy: The more empathetic someone was, the more likely they were to trust them. One person in the survey in particular remarked how their manager “needs to show more empathy,” and that “morally he is probably a good person but there are some times when it’s unclear if he actually has empathy due to challenges expressing it.”

#2: Communicate the intent behind your actions.

Twenty-six percent of people said making your intentions behind your actions clear was the most effective way to build trust. This makes sense, given that intent is such a primary part of the definition of trust, to begin with. Communicating the intent behind your actions means being open about why you’re saying something, and why decisions are made – including your decisions to not act on something. Be opaque about why you’re changing your mind, or fail to express why you’re giving feedback to someone and it can wreck havoc on your work relationship.

#3: Follow through on commitments.

Eighteen percent of employees expressed that simply following through on commitments was the most effective ways to build trust. This seems to be especially powerful given that we found that 48% of employees believed that the company has been all talk and no action on something lately – and 28% of employees said their manager has been all talk and no action. Similarly, 61% of managers believed that their direct reports had been all talk and no action on something lately.

In short, trust is not rapport. Trust is not team-building. It’s not about getting people to like you. And it’s not about getting people to just “feel good” about you or the company.

Trust is your intentions and your behavior. It’s making it clear why you’re doing something, being honest about it, and then following through with it.

You can hold as many company retreats as you’d like… But if you’re not vulnerable during those moments, your team won’t trust you.

You can be congratulatory with your team every week… But if you don’t follow through on your commitments, your words ring hollow.

You can share company financials far and wide… But if you don’t reveal your intentions about what you’ll do with that information, your team will be skeptical of you.

Align what you do with what you say. Your word and your action builds trust. Nothing else does.


PS: If you’re looking for a helpful system to build trust more authentically, you may want to check out Know Your Team – our software to help you become a better leader. In Know Your Team, we give you tools and resources specifically around building trust so you can put much of what I shared here directly into practice. Check it out here.

Building trust in teams: What and why?

How do you build trust in a team? First, let’s understand what trust really is and why it matters.

Who do you trust?

The first people who likely came to mind were your partner, your family, and your friends (hopefully). 

How about your boss? Your coworker? It’s harder to say. 

A 2016 study conducted by Edelman surveyed 33,000 people in 28 countries. From it, they discovered: One in three people don’t trust their employer. And only 24% of employees in this study believe their CEO exhibited highly ethical behavior.

In our own Know Your Team survey this past year of 597 managers and employees, we found that folks were slightly more trustful of one another: About 8% of employees said they rarely or never trust their manager. That’s almost 1 in 10 employees not trusting their manager. 

Why defining trust matters

Whether 1 in 3 employees or 1 in 10 employees don’t trust their managers – both are significant occurrences. Especially given the amount of time we interact with our coworkers, and the projects and outcomes that are on the line, it’s startling.

Are we really spending all this time with people we don’t trust? Should we be doing anything about this?

To answer those questions, we first have to define “trust” clearly. Misconstrue what trust actually is, and you spend time on the wrong things. Get it right, and building trust gets easier.

What trust is NOT:  Likability

We often equate trust with likability. We think, “This is a nice person” or “This is the kind of person I’d want to hang out with on weekends”… So we trust them. 

However, that’s only part of the equation. 

Consider someone in your company you don’t trust. You might like her. She’s affable, genuine and definitely tries her best. But trusting her with a high-profile project? You hesitate – she hasn’t shown the track record you need to feel confident. You don’t give her the big project because, honestly, you just don’t trust her enough.

So you if you want someone to trust you, it’s not enough that they like you. It’s not enough that they think you have good intentions. They’ve got to think you’re capable. They’ve got to think you have what it takes to prove something through. 

You might think someone is a good person – but you don’t trust them to actually get the work done. You need both.

This is an important distinction because many leaders accidentally optimize for likability as a means to build trust. They try to “be friends” with their direct reports, thinking it’ll mean their team will trust them more.

If we can internalize that trust is not likability, it causes us to not fall into the trap of trying to please everyone around us. If we want to build trust, there’s something deeper we have to access.

So then, if trust isn’t likability, what is it?

What trust IS: Intentions + Behavior

In a 1998 paper, Denise M. Rousseau suggested this definition of trust:  “A psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”

In short, trust is two things:  Intentions and Behavior. It’s people’s perception of who you are, and their expectation of what you can do. 

The 4 Cores

Stephen M.R. Covey defines trust in his popular book, “Speed of Trust,” similarly to Rousseau. To Covey, trust is the belief in who the person is, and a belief in their abilities – a person’s “Character” and their “Capabilities.” Covey then further breaks down trust into what he calls “Four Cores”:

  • Integrity – This means being honest, walking the talk, and being congruent with what you believe. You can’t trust someone unless you believe they have integrity. When someone is assessing your integrity, they’re wondering, “Do you have values I align with? Are you a good person?” 
  • Intent – This is your agenda or mission. Your team must trust your intent before they can trust you. A person sizing up your intent will wonder, “Are you thinking about yourself, or others, in this situation? Do you have the short-term, or the long-term in mind?”
  • Capabilities  – This is your talents, attitudes, skills, and knowledge. When someone is determining whether or not to trust you, they’ll consider, “Does this person have the expertise to do this job as well as they say they can?” Based on our survey, we found that both managers and employees most question their each others’ capabilities (26% of employees said this, and 36% of managers said this).
  • Results – This is your track record, your performance. You can’t be trusted unless you’ve shown results in some way that you can be trusted to follow-through. When you ponder about a coworker, “What has this person done that proves I can trust her?” you’re seeking results.

Warmth + Competence

Another related lens for understanding trust is described by organizational experts Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger. They revealed the two elements needed for a leader to be trusted were “Warmth” and “Competence” – with warmth needing to come first. 

According to their research, when you project strength too quickly, people have a harder time trusting you. They explain in Harvard Business Review, “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”

These perceptions of warmth and competence are powerful: “Insights from the field of psychology show that these two dimensions account for more than 90% of the variance in our positive or negative impressions we form of the people around us.”

How do you show warmth and competence? Cuddy and her research partners detail how warmth can mean positive body language, affirming words, generous actions, and even a smile. Competence can be projected similarly through body language (such as standing up straight), your past track record, and the actions you take going forward.

Like Covey, Cuddy’s research and explanation of the requirements for trust echo Rousseau’s definition of intention + behavior. Trust is all about who people think you are (warmth), and what they think you can do (competence).

Getting this distinction straight helps lay the groundwork for you to build trust in your team. You can now understand why someone might distrust you. Perhaps you haven’t defined your intent clearly enough. Perhaps it’s because of your past behavior. As a result, most importantly, you now can start to think how you can build trust in your team.

The clearer understanding we have of trust and what it really is, the clearer path we have to our teams trusting us more.