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10 Practical Tips to Help You Build and Restore Trust

11/06/2012 12:45


Success is never determined by any single factor – it results from a mixture of critical elements such as effective leadership, vision, strategy, communication, adaptability and often-overlooked factors such as opportunity and timing. However, with information technology turning the world into an inter-connected, volatile, ever-changing globalized environment, trust had become one vital factor without which sustainable success at any level is just not possible.

Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist from Claremont Graduate University who joined forces with researchers from the World Bank’s Development Research Group in trying to find out why trust between people varies dramatically across different countries. In the course of their research, they made this remarkable discovery:1

“We discovered that trust is among the strongest known predictors of a country’s wealth; nations with low levels tend to be poor. ...Societies with low levels are poor because the inhabitants undertake too few of the long-term investments that create jobs and raise incomes. Such investments depend on mutual trust that both sides will fulfil their contractual obligations.”

The fact that trust is a decisive factor for a nation’s prosperity is incredibly significant, and should call political leaders and development organizations to rethink some of the strategies aimed at providing aid and support to struggling nations. However, in our changed globalized environment the dynamics related to trust remain the same whether you’re leading a nation managing a small local hardware store. Until a decade or two ago change was still a slow, linear and mostly easily predictable process which meant that managers could get away with an autocratic, ‘command-and-control’ leadership style. Because the change was slow and therefore easily manageable a manager could largely depend on his or her own skills, knowledge and past experience to remain competitive and successful. Once best-practice had been determined, employees were largely mere replaceable cogs in the wheel of systems and structures which was kept in place by hierarchical and often authoritative leadership.

With the snowball-effect of new information leading to new technology spilling over into constant new innovations, that approach no longer works. Leaders or managers need to cultivate, harness and channel the knowledge, skill and creativity of their employees in order to stay ahead. To do this they need to use a more collaborative leadership style which includes greater sharing of responsibility and involving employees in the decision making process. Numerous studies have shown conclusively that for employees to engage and commit themselves at this level, which often includes voluntary extra-role behaviour (doing more than what’s required in their job contracts), they need to trust the organization and leaders for which they work.2

Ready to re-commit yourself and pay some extra attention to improving the levels of trust in your workplace? Here are some practical trust-building tips to consider:

 1. Model Trust

As discussed in a previous post (see Proof from Neuroscience that Trusting People Make Them More Trustworthy), evidence from neuroscience shows that by trusting people you could actually start a neurological trust-building process. When people feel trusted, the brain releases the neurohormone oxytocin which generally causes them to behave more trustworthy and to trust more. On a purely cognitive level, modeling trust as a leader would also set the example for others to follow.

2. Manage Expectations

When people’s expectations are not met, it triggers a number of negative responses all of which contributes to destroying trust. Expectations can be created by explicit promises (clear, direct spoken or written promises) or by implicit promises (promises suggested or implied indirectly).3 As a leader you need to manage both and make sure that promises are kept or if in extreme cases this is not possible, people understand why not and what to expect in future.

3. Keep Commitments

Closely related to the previous point, keeping your commitments will demonstrate trustworthiness. Leaders who jump from the one great (often unattainable) vision or strategy to the next will quickly loose support. When people see that you stay committed to the vision and to other commitments you’ve made they are more likely to trust you and to contribute towards the end goal.

4. Show Loyalty

One of the strongest building blocks for trust in any organization is top-down loyalty. A good leadership principle to apply here is to give credit and recognition to your people when the project is a success, but to take responsibility when it is a failure. Showing loyalty when people find themselves in a difficult situation or even during a personal crisis will go a long way to help cultivate trust.

5. Talk Straight

Many good-hearted leaders cause trust to deteriorate because they avoid saying what need to be said. Very often leadership is all about making the difficult calls and communicating this with your people in an open and straight manner. The golden rule here is to remain respectful and to distinguish between the individual (or group) and the issue – practicing the principles of neuroleadership where you also manage the neurological processes in social situations to attain the best possible results (see Proof From Neuroscience That Bad Leadership is BAD). If someone neglected their responsibility, for instance, address it in a way that shows your dissatisfaction with the deed without compromising the individual’s self-worth and identity.

6. Address Reality

While it is a leader’s task to create and cast a compelling vision for others to follow, this does not mean living in a dream where negative realities are ignored. In fact, an important part of leading people towards the vision is to keep them informed about where they currently are and what needs to be done to reach the vision. When things go wrong or when facing a crisis (also see Leading During a Crisis: 7 Lessons From the Costa Concordia Disaster), you will build trust by acknowledging this while facilitating the process of deciding how to overcome the problem.

7. Practice Accountability

Few leadership behaviours destroy trust more that leaders who take personal credit for success and seek scapegoats for failure. You can delicate the task but the ultimate responsibility remain yours. Be accountable and require others to be accountable too. By practicing accountability and acknowledging when you’ve made a mistake people will be encouraged to try new things even if it leads to failure – you not being scared of making mistakes will boost their confidence.

8. Communicate Clearly

Clear communication is the heart of many of the other trust-building practices that I’ve mentioned (also see our 3-part series on Leadership Communication). Communication is a constant two-way process between sender and receiver and as a leader it is your responsibility to enable the flow of information and responses in both directions. A critical part of good communication is to listen attentively – take time to hear what people have to say and think it through before responding. Listening to people make them feel respected and show that you have their interest at heart – a strong contributor to establishing affective trust between individuals.

9. Deliver the Goodies

Cognitive trust between individuals is formed when we perceive someone or something as responsible, reliable and competent. Because they demonstrate these characteristics, we hold the ‘rational’ believe that we can trust them. If as a leader you ‘deliver the goodies’ – results that benefit the individual and the organization, this will strengthen people’s cognitive trust in you. While your own skills, knowledge and experience will help, 21st Century leadership doesn’t require you to have all it all. It rather requires you to facilitate the flow of skills and knowledge and to know how and where to find what is required for success (see Ten Critical Skills Required to Lead Effectively in Our Global Village).

10. Remain Human

Above all, remain human. The time is long gone when people in developed nations believed in untouchable ‘larger-than-life’ leaders who knew everything and never made mistakes. Showing that you’re human doesn’t mean sharing your every doubt and fear and projecting yourself as insecure and uncertain. As a leader you need to lead with confidence and conviction, but as a human being you should not shy away from showing that you’re sometimes vulnerable, that you have the same needs as others and that you sometimes make mistakes. Saying that you’re sorry (and meaning it) will go a long way in revealing your human side. 

  • If you’re interested to know more about lifting the level of trust in your organization, the Strategic Leadership Institute offers top-end leadership development options to clients across the globe. Contact us for more about these dynamic programs or just to have a chat about how we can help you reach your full leadership potential.


1. Zak, P. J. (2008). The neurobiology of trust 2008. Scientific American, June, 99-95.

2. Sharkie, R. (2009). Trust in leadership is vitl for employee performance. Management Research News, 32 (5), 491-498.

3. Hall, V.(2009). The Truth About Trust in Business. Emerald Book Company, Austin, TX.

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