Building and Maintaining Trust For Effective Leadership

May 28, 2010 by  Filed under: Management 

The element of human behavior which is central to an analysis of organizations under stress is that of mutual trust. It is the cement which holds the organization together. It is the mortar between its human bricks. Where trust is high, an organization can stand unbelievable amounts of buffeting, where it is low, a seemingly innocuous incident may set off a chain reaction of crumbling human relationships.

– Miles, 1969: The Pathology of Institutional Breakdown

Miles said so much about a foundational concept of being an effective leader (and person) with so little words. As a leader how do you go about building trust with the various stakeholders you interact with? What behaviors do you have that hinder your ability to build trust? As a leader how are you helping your followers’ internalize this important concept and act with integrity?

What does it take to be Trusted as a Leader? In my view Trust is made up of 4 constructs:

1. Credibility, (includes the synonyms of trustworthiness, reliability, and integrity)

2. Respect,

3. Fairness, and

4. Responsibility


Credibility synonyms include trustworthiness, reliability and integrity. So when I use the term credibility I am also referring to the constructs of trustworthiness, reliability and integrity. Credibility means the ability to inspire belief – believability. For a Leader to be credible he or she must “walk the talk” and do it with expertise. Being credible means you are going to do what you say you are going to do and that you are going to do it competently. To be credible also means that you must be transparent. You must have open and honest communications with others. There are no hidden agendas.

So if you want to improve your credibility try doing these 3 things:

1. Walk the Talk consistently

2. Exhibit behaviors that reflect expertise and being a competent Leader, and

3. Open and honest communications and no hidden agendas


The second component is RESPECT. Respect involves being considerate, thoughtful, and showing deference and admiration toward others. As a leader, this means showing your associates appreciation for what they do, ensuring that they have the tools, equipment and training to perform at a high level. It means that you hold your staff in the highest regard and expect the best from them.

How do you make this actionable, what behaviors can you display to show respect?

  1. When someone does an excellent job let them know that you appreciate their hard work and dedication.
  2. Don’t be a know-it-all, at meetings defer to your staff to provide answers – let them shine and have input into decisions that involve them.
  3. Make sure your staff has the technology and training to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. Most people want to do excellent work and it is a big dissatisfier when they don’t have the tools to get the job done to the best of their ability. Also, when your people don’t have the right tools, it usually means it takes them a lot longer to do something. They don’t like it when they are not being efficient.
  4. Never embarrass your staff, not even if you are kidding around. Treat them like you want to be treated.
  5. Accept differences – when someone doesn’t agree with you, it is an opportunity to gain their trust by asking them why.
  6. Show empathy, listen and be caring. Treat that individual as a person, not someone who accomplishes goals for the organization.
  7. Part of listening is giving the person your time – that is your undivided attention. Don’t work on your computer, answer your phone or check emails when someone is in your office talking with you. Have you ever been at a customer service desk in a store asking the attendant a question only to have them stop working with you to answer the phone then go on and solve the problem of the person on the phone before you? How did that make you feel?
  8. Get out of your office, walk around and talk with your staff. When you get to work, do you go right to your office, and stay there? Try this: after placing your personal belongings in your office get out and about. You will be perceived as a more effective leader. You may find taking 15 minutes the first thing in the morning to connect with associates a better use of your time than reading emails.
  9. Don’t waste your staff’s time. Run effective efficient meetings. Respect their time. When people are so busy, they don’t want to waste it sitting around at meetings that don’t accomplish anything.

What behaviors do you find important in building and maintaining RESPECT?


The third component in my model of what it takes to build and maintain TRUST as a Leader is Fairness. Fairness includes:

  1. 1. equity,
  2. 2. impartiality, and
  3. 3. justice

As a leader, to act in an equitable way means that you are balanced in the treatment for all in terms of rewards. You are impartial in regards of favoritism in hiring and promoting. And, you are just. Justice requires that you lack discrimination and have a process for appeals when your associates don’t agree with you or with some other aspect in the workplace.

Being perceived by your staff as fair is trickier than it seems on the surface. What we think of as acting in a fair manner may not be perceived by others as fair. I personally experienced this when I was leading a diverse team of individuals. The organization I was working for conducted an annual employee engagement survey. The first year the survey was conducted results showed that there was an opportunity for me to improve my score on the Fairness dimension. When I followed up with my staff, I received important feedback that surprised me, but I understood why it might be perceived by some that I was not being impartial in my hiring process. The mistake I made was privately meeting with staff members that I thought would be strong candidates to be promoted into new leadership roles. Even though I announced at meetings that these positions were open, the fact that I approached individuals that I thought were strong candidates, they naturally told others that I approached them, it was perceived by some that I was not being fair.

Another factor that makes being perceived by your staff as fair is when your staff members perceive that the organization is acting in an unfair manner. As a leader, you symbolically represent the “organization”, so actions and policies of the organization reflect back on you. For an organization to be perceived by individuals as being fair, economic success is shared equitably through compensation and benefit programs. Everybody receives equitable opportunity for recognition. Decisions on hiring and promotions are made impartially, and the workplace seeks to free itself of discrimination, with clear processes for appealing and adjudicating disputes. From my experience in leadership roles, it was not uncommon for staff to have issues with the fair distribution of profits and with some of the organizational policies that didn’t fit with their particular preferences.

What is your experience?


Responsibility means to be accountable to someone or something, having the agency to act and make decisions within that realm and the courage to take blame when your behavior does not hold up to the obligations that come with being responsible to someone or something.

Responsibility starts with being accountable and answerable for your behavior. It means you will act in a manner that is congruent with cultural norms and expectations. You will follow through with the obligations you have placed on yourself and those that have been assigned to you as a consequence of your position in life; common examples include being a citizen, daughter, son, father, mother, wife or husband. Daily, the news agencies broadcast stories about people not living up to their responsibilities as parents, husbands or wives. All people mess up and make mistakes. That’s a part of everyday life. People who can be trusted take responsibility for their mistakes. They don’t blame others or make excuses. When Responsible people mess up, they admit it and do what is necessary to fix it, if at all possible.

When you take on a leadership role, you are accepting responsibility for a span of control and authority over something and usually someone. You may be accepting responsibility for a project, a team, a department, a division, a geographical territory or for the entire organization. In our leadership roles we accept being responsible to the organization, to our superiors and to our patients, clients or customers. However, often overlooked is our responsibility and accountability to those who work for us. An exceptional leader recognizes this responsibility and artfully balances the sometimes contradictory obligations of being responsible to staff, the organization, to superiors, to patients, clients and customers and to one’s family.

Building and maintaining TRUST requires that you are Credible, Respectful and Fair, holding to these three dynamics helps in balancing the intricacies of being Responsible to multiple obligations that are not always in alignment with one another. Another helpful resource is following the practices of a Servant Leader. A Servant Leader is someone who achieves results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization’s resources (human, financial and physical).

Another phenomenon about leading and being responsible is that you do not always have absolute control over outcomes that you are accountable for. In interviewing a Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for my dissertation I asked him what it felt like being a CMO. His response was, “it’s like driving a car without a steering wheel”. His words formed an excellent metaphor for what it is like being held accountable and having responsibility in producing outcomes over something that is beyond your total control. For many of us leaders this is not an unusual predicament. It requires us to have TRUST in others that have a bearing on things we are responsible for. It requires us to develop our skills in relationship management, political acumen and interpersonal skills. We must be competent at influencing others that we do not have formal authority over.

Dr. Don Nowill is an organizational psychologist. He has an extensive background in business and psychology; coupled with years of experience hiring, and developing high performing individuals, teams and organizations. He combines his professional business experience and a strong academic and research background in the social and behavioral sciences with a personable approach in helping individuals reach their full potential. His approach with clients is personable, collaborative, supportive with an action orientation. His praxis is grounded in evidenced based interventions custom tailored to his client’s needs.

For more information visit his organization’s website at or email him at

Article Source:

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Prev Post:
Next Post: