Trust is hard-won, easily lost and underpins culture, performance and leadership in an organisation. Two experts in leadership and the workplace explain why leaders should prioritise trust.
It is hard to overstate the value of trust in the workplace. After all, all good relationships – commercial, institutional, personal and professional – are based on and rely on trust.
Not only is trust a precious commodity, but it is also a precarious one. As Margie Warrell, leadership expert and CEO of leadership consultancy Global Courage writes in her book Stop Playing Safe, trust “can take years to build and only moments to destroy. And yet, without trust, it is impossible to build the influence, make the difference or achieve the success you aspire to.”
The four components of trust
Warrell views trust as comprising four interrelated components. The first is reliability. “We know people who are always running late, and we can’t count on them to show up on time, or they overcommit and are spread too thin.” The question to ask is, “Can I count on this person to do what they say when they say they’re going to do it?”
The next is competence, a “domain-specific” quality, says Warrell. “Competence is our assessment of someone’s skills and expertise to get the job done. Do they know what they’re doing? I might be a highly trustworthy person, but if you put me in to be the CFO of your company, I will fail at it because I lack the competence.”
“When trust is absent, people will have less access to their highest cognitive functions, so they won’t think as clearly, they won’t be able to be as strategic, creative or innovative, and they certainly won’t be able to see things from other people’s perspectives.” Michelle Bihary, leadership consultant
Sincerity is another driver of trust. The common assumption that politicians say what they think others want to hear, rather than what they believe, means they often suffer from a perceived lack of sincerity.
“It’s about our judgement on the gap between what they’re saying and what they’re thinking,” says Warrell. “Their private and their public conversations – are they aligned? None of us says exactly what we think all the time…but do we believe they mean what they say and say what they mean?”
Trust also requires mutual concern, empathy and compassion, says Warrell. “We know the number one reason people leave companies and leave jobs is that they don’t feel that their manager cares about them.”
As a manager, I might be reliable, competent and sincere, Warrell says, but if “you’re working for me and you think I don’t give a brass razoo about your wellbeing, it’s going to undermine how you feel about me. You might still do your job, but you’re not going to be particularly loyal, because you don’t think I care about you.”
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The high cost of broken trust
Warrell describes mistrust as a “hidden tax” on every interaction, which can inhibit progress, stifle collaboration, slow productivity and undermine performance.
Leadership and workplace resilience expert Michelle Bihary agrees that a lack of trust negatively affects culture and performance in the workplace. In her book Leading Above the Line, Bihary calls on neuroscience to explain the links between trust, culture and performance in the workplace.
The executive brain, she says, is “where we have our highest cognitive and psychological functions, where we do our best thinking, where we manage and navigate our best relationships, where we can see things from other people’s perspectives”.
The limbic system, also referred to as our “reptile brain”, governs our fight or flight response and manages risk. In situations where there is a lack of psychological safety, it is this part of the brain that takes over from the executive brain, says Bihary.
“When trust is absent, people will have less access to their highest cognitive functions, so they won’t think as clearly, they won’t be able to be as strategic, creative or innovative, and they certainly won’t be able to see things from other people’s perspectives.”
As a result, Bihary says, the quality of decision-making suffers, interpersonal relationships become more guarded and potentially competitive, and stress skyrockets.
“They’re all things that are driven by that flight or fight response. We’re less collaborative, less honest, less open, and we don’t…feel part of the team.” This results in poor outcomes for our performance, fulfilling our potential, our wellbeing and morale.
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How to build trust
To build trust with staff, leaders should be approachable, respectful, predictable and confident in others’ ability, says Bihary.
Remain open to feedback and align your behaviour with your values. Get to know your team members as people, find out what’s important to them and try to create opportunities to connect on a “human-to-human” level, she says, not just “role-to-role”.
Take time to check in regularly with staff. “Go out of your way to let people know that you’ve got their back and that you care about them,” advises Warrell.
Concern and empathy are of paramount importance in times of crisis, when “it’s even more important for leaders to have one-on-ones and do a lot more hands-on taking care of people”.
Building trust with others begins with self-trust. “A lot of people are unnecessarily self-critical,” says Bihary. Most people have a clear idea about how they would like a leader to speak to them to bring out their best, yet our inner discourse is often harsh and excessively negative.
“We would be horrified if someone else spoke to us like we speak to ourselves,” she says.
Developing self-trust requires self-awareness and the acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses. A lack of self-trust often drives the behaviour of micromanagers and “control freaks”, whereas individuals with high self-trust are “comfortable being a learner and making mistakes” and are prepared to let go of perfectionism, says Bihary.
“It’s about trusting that we have strengths, we have skills, we have positive things to contribute, and allowing ourselves to recognise these things without becoming narcissistic and egocentric.”