Practical Trust Building Tips for Leaders

When it comes to building trust in an organization it’s important to be realistic. We all know that trust is foundational to high-performance teams—but it is extraordinarily hard to build and maintain within most organizations. Consider the many ways that employees cannot trust the organizations they work in:

    • They can’t depend on the organization to provide them with a job forever.
    • They can’t expect that their hard work and excellent performance will be rewarded with a promotion—or even with job security.
    • They can’t be certain that a boss that they love and respect won’t leave the organization—to be replaced by someone who doesn’t know or value them.
    • They can’t rely on their peers not to go after the same position they covet.

These observations may seem obvious, but compare them to the similar situations in our personal lives:

    • We have faith that most of the relationships we seriously commit to will last forever.
    • We can expect that, when we put our best efforts forth to work through conflicts, we will stay friends through tough times.
    • We believe that, even when we aren’t our best selves, we won’t be thrown out of our families.
    • We can rely on our best friends not to go after our love interests.
    • Even when we compete with our friends, we usually share power and alternate wins.

Of course, we have relationships where these levels of trust don’t exist, which is exactly why we measure our relationships based on whether we have this kind of trust, and when we don’t, we feel betrayed.

The way we have learned about trust and betrayal in our personal relationships doesn’t map well to organizations we work in. Therefore, we need a different paradigm—a new way to understand “organizational trust”.

What does Trust mean in the context of an organization?

The organizational hierarchy itself is not naturally conducive to trust. People are always being judged. Acceptance and belonging are very much conditional. The organization is always changing and adapting in response to market fluctuations, so the structures we work in and the way we approach work will always be changing, and often not in ways that feel great.

Despite these challenges, the teams that perform well together have each other’s backs. They find meaning in their work. They love pulling off the impossible together and get deep fulfillment from their relationships.

So, what is the key to creating this kind of tight-knit team, even in environments that are unpredictable? Leaning into this daunting challenge is one of the most important factors that sets great leaders apart.

As a leader, what can you promise your team?

First, it’s important to ask yourself some real questions and answer yourself honestly. What can you really promise your team? Maybe you can promise that you’ll listen to them, support them, and work through decisions with them, but you probably can’t promise you won’t make decisions that harm them individually for the greater good of the team or organization.

I’ve found that leaders can’t promise a lot on the behalf of the organization unless they control it. And even if you own a business, you can’t control everything. If you are a leader, most of what you can promise your team is who you will be while you are leading them.

    • Lead By Example: A lot of these promises won’t be made verbally; they’ll be made by how you show up consistently when you are working with your team. For example, I know several entrepreneurs who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. They’ll clean toilets, sweep floors, help with shipping, and get in there anytime and anywhere they are needed to make sure things run smoothly. This inspires loyalty – the team trusts that the leader knows what goes into their work and sees them as people and partners in the business. Another example is how a leader interacts with the team. Do they spend most of the time talking about themselves or do they show a true interest in the lives of those who support them?
    • Clarify Core Values: Getting real about what you can and can’t promise is an important reflection, and what it boils down to is getting clear on your core values. In most cases, what a leader can promise stems from his or her core values and the behaviors that consistently display those values. I recommend honing in on your six core values and writing a list of behaviors that reflect those values. If you’ve nailed your values, then you are probably already doing these things naturally, but now, with the additional clarity, you can identify five or six behaviors that you can easily and consistently live into.

If you aren’t sure about your core values, or you’d like to review them again for more clarity, we have two different values workbooks in our online learning center that you can use to walk through that process. Once you decide on the few things you can promise, you can start building a foundation of trust around those things.

How do you facilitate trust among your team members?

Consistently showing up in alignment with your core values is an important first step in building trust, but it’s only the first step. In addition to your team trusting you, they need to trust each other, and to start facilitating team trust, there are two key blind-spots you’ll need to acknowledge: first, your team will never tell you when they don’t trust you and secondly, your team will rarely tell you when they don’t trust each other.

Too many leaders pride themselves on having an open-door policy, and believe that if no one comes in with problems, it must mean there are no problems. Believe me, you aren’t going to be told about the interpersonal issues that your team is dealing with – until they have gone on for far too long and are out of control! By the time the issue makes its way to you, it’s usually already beyond repair.

So, your first job as a leader is to proactively check in with your people and make sure you know how they are doing. Don’t look for red flags—look for orange flags and yellow flags. Find out where they aren’t speaking up. Don’t create mountains out of mole hills, but make sure you see the dynamics for what they are. Look for the competitions and power struggles. Notice when one team member is intimidated or shutting down around another. Notice the close relationships and identify where they are serving the team and where they are dividing the team.

Once you have a sense for where your team is at, then you can work through the following steps to start the trust-building process:

    • Get to know each other: We have icebreakers in meetings to help people laugh together and discover small things they have in common. While it may seem superficial, this is the first step to bringing a team together. We are programmed to bond with people who are “like us”. Your job as team leader is to show team members how they are “like each other”. Laughing together releases endorphins and bonds people even more. There are any number of ice-breaker activities on the Internet. It doesn’t matter which one you use – but starting meetings with fun 5-minute ice breakers can go a long way to helping your team learn what they have in common and laugh together.
    • Win together: Small wins build confidence. Teams who win together bond with each other and start trusting that they can win more together. Start small with projects that you know will succeed and you can celebrate together. Depending on your team dynamics, you may choose to put two people together on a project when you know they need to bond, or you might choose something that the whole team can work together on. Regardless of the project, it’s your job as leader to acknowledge the win out loud and talk specifically about what the team did together to achieve the win. This helps the team learn what roles to take on with each other to get the best results.
    • Work through conflict: Once the team is ready, it’s time to have deeper conversations. Again, start easy and make sure you have a safe environment. Pick topics that are only a little bit of a stretch to discuss. For example, if you have a team issue where people are coming in at different hours and impacting communication, talk about that issue and get suggestions on what the team wants to do about it without calling specific people out. Working through conflict takes practice, but once a team gets good at it and can manage it without personal attacks, they rise to a new level altogether. I often suggest having the team read the book Crucial Conversations and practice using the model together until they master it.

Create Psychological Safety and Maintain a Shared Vision

It’s important for a team to be clear on their shared vision and short-term goals and to feel that their work is meaningful. But the most important aspect of trust is creating psychological safety, because that supports honest communication and creates a foundation that allows the team to communicate through everything else.

Commitment to Trust-Building

Building trust in your team takes time, patience and practice, but any effort you put into it will yield a huge payoff. Not only will you continue to master an invaluable leadership skill set as you lean into the practices, but your team will notice any genuine effort on your part and respond to it with elevated commitment. If you would like a mentor to partner with you as you embark on the journey of elevating your team to the next level, reach out to Nahid – the process is even more powerful when you aren’t working through it alone!


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