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3 Ways To Become A Trusted Leader

A few years ago, I decided I’d participate in Mudderella with a group of friends. That’s a 5K obstacle course with the ultimate goal of fundraising that benefits breast cancer. I’ll be honest; I’m not athletic at all. 5K isn’t super long, no, but it’s still 3.1 miles of mud, waist high water, ropes and walls. I was terrified.

What got me through the whole experience was trust*, and specifically:

  • Trust in myself

  • Trust in each friend

  • Trust in the overall team

*Scroll to the end to find out how we fared

The importance of trust

According to Stephen M.R. Covey, trust is the one thing that’s common to every person, relationship, team, family, organization, and civilization. It’s the one thing that if removed has the power to destroy the most successful business, the most impactful leadership, and the deepest love.

Workplaces with engaged, productive, and innovative employees are founded on trust. In a study across 9,800 employees globally, EY discovered that individuals believe high trust levels in their organizations would positively impact their happiness, quality of work, and commitment.

But trust is often very absent in the workplace and leadership context — in fact, only 49% of full-time workers in the EY study responded that they had “a great deal of trust” in those working above and alongside them. And, with the exception of Japan, almost no first-world country has even 50% trust in their CEOs according to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer. It’s not a rosy picture.

But if trust is important and it’s absent in workplaces, it all begs the question: as leaders how do we become more trustworthy? In a word: consistency. Be consistent in your relationships with yourself and others. So, here are 3 specific steps (and related actions) you can take to build trust.

1. Begin with self-trust

Have you ever made a commitment to yourself and not followed through on it? Of course you have. New Year’s resolutions are the very essence of this for many reasons — as well as goals that you set but never followed through on for your business, health or finances. We’ve all done it.

Now imagine if that was a promise you made to someone else. Would you have tried harder to do what you said you were going to do?

The common answer when thinking about following through for others is a resounding ‘yes.’

Breaking your word with yourself results in low self-trust. And if you can’t trust yourself, you’ll have a hard time trusting others … and, they in return, trusting you.

You improve self-trust by listening to your inner wisdom or intuition, following through with consistent and purposeful action, paying attention to the results you get, and course-correcting when necessary.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Self-trust is the first secret to success . . . the essence of heroism.”

Self-Coaching Question: What’s one thing you can do to build your self-trust?

2. Build trust at the individual level

The next step is building trust with others. Trust can take a lifetime to build, yet it’s so easy to break. Leaders who take the time to build trusting relationships are more influential and impactful.

What’s the secret to building trusting relationships? Brene Brown is a big name in this space, and she breaks down the anatomy of trust into an acronym called BRAVING, or:

  • Boundaries: Respect ‘em, and be willing to say no.

  • Reliability: Do what you say you will do, and be aware of your competencies.

  • Accountability: Own your mistakes and make amends.

  • Vault: Don’t share information or experiences that aren’t yours to share.

  • Integrity: Choose courage over comfort; choose what’s right over what’s fun.

  • Non-Judgment: We can discuss what we feel without judgment.

  • Generosity: You are generous in interpreting the words and actions of others, and you’re generous with your time and gifts.

The BRAVING framework makes a lot of sense. If all seven of these factors are present in any given relationship, be it work or intimate, you’re likely going to trust the other person and vice-versa. It’s also a helpful tool to pinpoint where the trust in a relationship might be compromised and gives you a roadmap for recovery. If you realize that you aren’t seen as a ‘vault’ with others’ information, you’ll know you need to boost your ability to keep things in confidence.

Self-Coaching Question: What are you doing to build trust with others?

3. Create and maintain team trust

As leaders, we are only as good as our team performs. And trust is to a team what oil is to a car engine … without it everything seizes up.

Team trust means we trust each other, we can talk freely, and we can agree to disagree. In addition to the BRAVING framework, here are a few additional tips to build trusting teams.

  • Be transparent: … and do it about the hard topics, like salary, why a bonus isn’t in the cards this year, why one person advanced and one didn’t, etc. Be open about work but also about yourself, blemishes and all. It’s hard, yes. The conversations are awkward. But without them, how would your team ever trust you?

  • Link the execution-level work to the bigger picture: … in enterprise companies, employees often get burned out because the goal of the decision-makers is always tied to money and growth. But what if their job roles don’t immediately generate revenue? It can become depressing. As a leader, if you can link their work to the bigger goals, that’s empowering — and your team will trust you.

  • Create effective, safe space meetings: … we’ve all sat in update meetings where everyone drones on about their projects and you just wait for your name to be called, say your piece, and tune out again. Those meetings are awful. Be a better meeting-leader for your team. Have a main topic of power — failure, or concerns about automation, or questions about revenue generation. Have an open discussion about that topic. Then, instead of everyone updating, have people bring up their areas of concern about what they’re working on and get solutions from teammates. Encourage them to speak freely and even agree to disagree. Now it’s truly collaborative. Now you’re building trust.

  • Be on time: … showing up late to meetings erodes trust. If it’s a habit; change it. If it’s occasional due to unforeseen circumstances apologize and explain. Expect this behavior from all team members.

  • Have a truly open door policy: … a lot of leaders say this, and then would prefer to hide behind email or some tech platform and not really talk to their teams. A Harvard Business School study about 2-3 years ago showed that 60% of leaders claimed they ‘didn’t have the time’ to respect their employees or talk to them, as if respect is scheduled in Outlook. (Hint: it’s not.) You need to be able to be present and have conversations, even the tough ones, to gain the trust of your people.

Self-Coaching Question: What can you do to build trust among your team?

Trust can be built. You can be seen as a more trustworthy leader. It requires effort and consistency. But isn't anything worth doing?

If you’re wondering how the rest of the Mudderella story went …

I built my self-trust with training. Despite my fear, I began to trust in my own abilities. I strengthened my trust with others by following the BRAVING framework in various conversations and interactions leading up to the event.

And as a team, we created ground rules as to how we would honour and support each other’s limitations and strengths. We got to the actual day and we all finished, we all helped each other through the toughest parts, my shoulders didn’t completely rip apart from my body, and the power of trust — which underscores almost the entire human condition, in reality — won out again.

Leaders who work with Lisa as their executive leadership coach have seen great results when it comes to building trust. Perhaps this is the next step for you?


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