How to Build Trust in Your People
Trust. As leaders, when we have it with our people, anything is possible.
Below I will describe six elements that are rarely discussed that erode trust between leaders and their people.
I emigrated to the US from Lebanon in 1990, and that affords me insight into comparing the West with developing nations. When you ask the people of these nations what they don’t like about their governments, it is invariably trust.
They don’t believe the leaders because there have been too many who have become millionaires by stealing, too many who have grabbed power and not given it up, or delegated it to his friends or family. People do not trust their leaders because basic services are not rendered (like 24/7 electricity, water, or trash pick-ups). And while the content of this article is not exclusive to political leaders, I use this illustration because it is so prevalent in most of the developing world. Regardless of where you live, most of us can probably relate to having misplaced trust in leadership.
Trust is belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. I like Miriam Webster’s definition of trust: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.
When a leader’s character is questioned—when they are not fully honest, when they rob others to serve themselves, when they love their position more than their people or doing an excellent job—even if judged incorrectly, the people and the work suffers. When we don’t understand decisions a leader makes, we question their ability, strength, and wisdom. We start wavering on whether or not we want stick around, and if we have no option to leave, we may become disengaged, indifferent, or even retaliate. I think we can all agree that in any organization trust is a must. [You may also want to read this article: The (Not So) Secret Ingredient to Thriving Relationships.]
I’d like to make one more point before I share six elements that erode trust. As leaders, we may be convinced that we are trustworthy, we may even believe that others trust us. But I have found that merely because of our leadership position—that of power, and many times absolute authority—our motives will be questioned all the time. So we must always ‘replenish the bank’ in people’s minds and hearts to prove our trustworthiness. We must consistently demonstrate trust and remind people that we have not changed; we have not abandoned our high values.
Here’s how to do it. These points are relevant in any relationship, not just with a leader and follower.
1—Eliminate white lies, little lies, and half truths.
I am not adding “big lies” to this list because I presume we know that lying is incompatible with effective leadership. While I don’t see blatant lies from people, probably because they know they will be easily discovered and held accountable, I do frequently see that people justify white lies, little lies, and half truths.
White lies are those we justify as trivial; they are often told to protect others from being hurt. Your outfit is pretty. I would love to have you speak, but we have no spots available. While both statements may be untrue, we think no one will not find out, and we will have averted emotional injury. Sure, these people may not know. But once we have established this pattern in our character, people will know that if we do that to others, we are capable of doing that to them.
Small lies are similar, but perhaps of somewhat greater consequence. I cannot give you a raise because we are not making much profit. I cannot have lunch because I will be with my family. While both may be untrue, again, they are not good for the same reason.
What I found is that lies almost always come to the light of day. Even if 10% of them come to the light of day, it creates a divide that would take a very long to repair. Even if in a theoretical world you can guarantee lies could not be uncovered, I hope that we still choose to tell the truth simply because it is the right thing to do. And above all, we should do what is right.
We recently had a staff member (who no longer works with us) tell our manager that she had read a 23-page report. However, we knew it was untrue because she didn’t realize that we can tell how long a person is on a page in our electronic medical records before clicking away. We could tell that she was only on the report a total of six seconds, certainly not enough time to go through the entire 23 pages. And while this report was truly of very little consequence, telling this little lie was detrimental to our evaluation of her as she was being considered for advancement.
Finally half truths, telling the part of the truth that is advantageous, and intentionally not sharing the rest. I will be working at this other company part-time, but the portion of the story that is left unsaid is that you are also now co-owner of that company. Even though this is not an outright lie, omitting details that would/should normally be shared is not trust-building.
Transparent means that one is able to see inside. The difference is evident when you look at transparent glass versus tinted glass. If you see your life as a box made out of glass, the question is what level of tinting do you choose to apply? Some may say being transparent should not be a requirement for leadership. Should you really share everything about everything? [You may like to read this article: 6 Reasons Leaders Don’t Build Relationships with Those They Lead.]
Here is my approach to transparency in leadership: The more transparent I can be in most areas of my life is best. Of course, some areas of my life are intertwined with others. For example, being transparent about certain matters regarding my spouse could be disrespectful to her. Outside of that, I believe that the more I can share about my personal life, our organization, my dreams, and my professional life, the better it is. And of course if I am applying principle number one and being utterly honest, it gives my people the comfort of knowing what is going on inside of my heart and mind. And it removes any reason for them to question my actions or motives.
I was recently introduced to a hospital where the staff members were asking the administration for salary increases. They had all kinds of theories as to why their requests were not being fulfilled, and they were all negative (from they don’t care about us, to they don’t know what they are doing). Then I heard an administrator give me the reason which I believe is actually the truth. There was nothing malicious about it. So why the rift? The leadership does not practice intentional transparency. To win in this area, you have to try to put yourself in the shoes of others, and ask yourself if you would be uneasy if you didn’t know. Then, tell them the truth.
3—Don’t keep another person’s secret if it hurts the team.
Normally, we want to keep people’s secrets. But not here. What if a group of staff members are plotting against the company you work for, or they are doing something to hurt the team? You just happened to find out. Would you tell the leadership?
This happened to me a while back. We found out that a group of staff members had secretly planned to hurt the company. After everything went down, we approached a few people who we had discovered were not part of of the plot, but were aware of it. They said, “We knew this was wrong, but it was not our secret to tell.” While we want to practice not sharing secrets to avoid engaging in gossip, not sharing something that will potentially hurt someone you care for, or your team, is simply wrong and definitely not trust-building. But how do you do it if you are sworn to secrecy?
You tell the conspirators, “Look, what you are doing is wrong. You should not have told me because now I have to tell leadership. I care for this team, and I think it is the wrong thing to do not to share. So, I will give you one to two days to tell them yourself. Otherwise, I will tell them what’s going on here.” If you have to disclose it yourself, don’t share it with the world and bad mouth people; that would be hurtful gossip. Go directly to the person in charge, and let them know what’s happening.
4—Share important matters.
How can you ask me to trust you if you don’t trust me with the biggest things in your life? You may believe, it has nothing to do with you. This is my life. While true, you technically don’t need to share the big things in your life with those you lead, or those who lead you, withholding important matters contributes to a culture of weak relationships.
Imagine with me two Navy Seals in a line of danger. One of them is excited because his daughter was just born. Another is sad because his sister just died. Yes, sharing these things has nothing to do with war, but it has everything to do with relationship. And if you believe that great leaderships are built on strong, personal connections, then not sharing major life events, big dreams, important developments, or critical shifts in vision, will not lead to investing in relationships, and thus your effectiveness with your people.
For me, I want to share the big and the small, not to support being counterproductive or unfocused at work, but to share my life with the people I lead and invite them to share theirs with me.
If you study the four personality types, cholerics (the D in DISC systems), naturally struggle with this area. Because control is a significant emotional need they have, they feel that sharing certain things with people can cause them to lose control over their life. Choleric leaders do well to work on maturing in this area.
5—Share matters early.
When we don’t share things early (good and bad things), then we will not be relied upon and trusted. Certain matters need to be shared with others within a critical window. Otherwise, while it might be better than not saying anything at all, it will be almost as bad.
Imagine if a person working for the CIA learns of an attack that is about to happen in three months. He or she waits two weeks to notify the proper authorities for no good reason. How will that person be looked upon? While I am not in the spy business, I am sure the person would be questioned and maybe even suspected to be a double agent.
What information might you be sitting on too long that you should share with your people? If you listen to legal exchanges between lawyers and witnesses, you quickly learn that when people knew is key. It is human nature in all settings to assign trust based on when something has been shared.
It could be that you found out that the company profits are grossly lacking and that thirty people will have to be laid off. While I am not advising that you share important information too soon and recklessly, it is crucial to share as early as possible to maintain trust and so negative motives are not assigned to you.
6—Don’t talk to others about the issues.
If you have a problem with something I am doing, and you tell others without or before telling me, that will always damage the trust we have between us. I will feel that you don’t trust me enough to be exposed to my pain. When people find out that something sensitive was shared with others, when it should have been shared between us, we will lose a little trust. Many times we think, this will not get back to him. It always gets back to you. Like I said above, even if there is only 10% chance that it might, why would you want to take the risk? Do the right thing. Go to the source first.
[You may want to reference this article: The Most Common Reason Leadership Fails: Relationships Fail.]
Building trust takes intentional effort. I pray that you will follow these six healthy principles to lift the trust levels in your leadership to higher levels.