There are a lot of good books and materials written about the importance of trust. It has a huge impact on culture, engagement, and company performance. More importantly for an individual Manager, it represents the secret ingredient to true success. I share a visual representation of the effects of trust here, which helps explain why increased trust can be so important for Managers.
So where do you start to build trust? Here are three first steps to build real, genuine trust (a process that takes time):
Always remember: trust, and leadership, is about people. The first meaningful act as a leader should be to truly listen, understand, and empathize with those you lead. Demonstrate this over and over. Don’t just listen with an intent to respond. Listen to truly understand their perspective, their concerns, their insight, etc.
As Stephen Covey teaches in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”:
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Leaders – especially new leaders – commonly want to assert themselves, showing they have the ‘chops’ to be a good leader. This usually means a lot of talking to prove their own knowledge and capability. It actually sounds pretty natural to share knowledge and wisdom as the leader. It feels even more natural. We all like to hear ourselves talk, and we all like to talk about areas in which we have expertise.
But remember: listen and understand first, then you’ll have a receptive, trusting audience. (This sounds, and feels counter-intuitive. You’ll need to remind yourself often to keep doing this.)
*Really good article on listening here, by Zenger & Folkman on HBR.org.
This is the hardest part, but perhaps the most important. In his book “Trustology” Richard Fagerlin debunks the ‘big lie’ of trust: “Trust can’t be earned. It can only be given.” Such a powerful principle to build trust – you shouldn’t withhold trust until someone earns it, you actually build trust by giving it. This is a complex principle to grasp, and even harder to practice.
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway
Uncomfortable with this? Does it sound like you just blindly give all your trust away, without any accountability, or recourse, for possible failures? Doesn’t have to be that way.
- Start with small tasks – tasks you may have done yourself, or closely directed in the past. Hand-off a task that you feel is relatively low risk or low impact.
- Allow someone to improve a process/task all on their own – don’t comment, correct, or judge.
- Ask for ideas. Listen, don’t critique. Clarify so you understand, but don’t shoot it down. You may find some easy, ‘low hanging fruit’ to use or change which will help the work, AND help grow trust immensely (especially as you give credit to the originator of the idea).
Think of it this way: there may be a certain task a team member does that you feel you could do better. How much better…? 10%? 20%? If so, is it really that important to squeeze out that extra 10-20% improvement, if the cost is eroding trust? Sometimes it may be. But not always. Be careful of that.
As you think critically about what you should hold on to, and what you could have someone else do, you will start to discover ways to extend trust.
The essence of trust – being able to rely on someone – must be built on unwavering consistency. This helps people know they can rely on you, and your leadership. Establish consistent practices: regular 1:1 conversations, team meetings, status reports, information sharing sessions.
These regular practices be valuable for you to demonstrate that you are worthy of trust. BUT, be warned: even well-intentioned practices (like team meetings, etc.) can erode trust if they become too inconsistent, or sporadic. My advice? Start slow. Promise something you know you can deliver. For example, start by promising a monthly team meeting or status update, instead of a weekly one. Hit that target first, build trust, then move on from there.
Actions and decisions are important components of consistency. Be thorough and deliberate in making decisions, as you stop to consider what future ramifications the action may have. As you continue forward, look back and reflect, using past decisions as information to help make future decisions. Flip-flopping, wavering, back-tracking or inconsistency can quickly erode trust.
These three initial actions can become the pillars of trusting relationships. Hold true to these practices over time. Show that you are genuine and earnest in your desire to build trust. Show that this is not a “flash in the pan” or “latest idea” that comes quickly, then disappears.
Building trust takes time. It takes work. It takes dilligent, consistent effort. It is likely very hard! But if done well, it will be one of the most important ingredients to your success as a leader.