A Bit of Them and A Lot of Us

Part 2 of Our Building Trust Series

Why does trust matter in organizations?  Simple – because trust is the foundation of influence and influence is the essence of leadership.  Great leaders motivate rather than direct; they gain commitment rather than settle for compliance; they inspire people to give blood, sweat, and tears; they cultivate a degree of trust that empowers team members and colleagues to take risks…the kinds of risks that produce innovative solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.

Trust is what undergirds relationships – and people and relationships are at the heart of every great success story.

So how is trust built?  Essentially, there are two factors that contribute to trust in a leader: propensity to trust and trustworthiness.

Propensity to Trust

Some people are naturally trusting and inclined to look for the good in us.  Their default setting is to believe we have good intentions and good capabilities (until proven otherwise). 

Other people are naturally inclined to be skeptical and mistrusting – perhaps even cynical.  When confronted with an ambiguous situation, such people tend to assume the worst.  They assume we’re out to get them, to take credit for their work, to embarrass them, or to harm them.  When something goes wrong, they assume it’s because we, the culprits (and they generally assume there are culprits), are incompetent, selfish, or unethical.

They experience negative feelings more frequently and more intensely than do their more optimistic counterparts – and these negative feelings color their perceptions of the world in ways that make trust-building extremely difficult.  Psychologists call this coloring the hostile attribution bias.

So, what’s the implication for us and our organizations?  Simple: when possible, hire optimists. Composing an organization full of people (with the requisite skills and experience, of course) who see opportunities instead of obstacles, who assume mistakes are innocent rather than malicious, and who are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt will allow radically effective communication, conflict resolution, and collaboration to be rampant – and that allows for a healthy and functional organizational culture.


So, earning trust is much easier when employees and team members are naturally inclined to do so.  Not much of a revelation, is it? 

Here’s the more challenging piece – the piece that’s about us, the leaders.  We must demonstrate to people that we’re trustworthy.  We must earn trust.  What does it mean to be trustworthy?

Essentially, it means three things.  First, it means people must believe we’re competent.  Would you trust a leader who seemed poised to lead you off a cliff?  Our people must believe that we know what we’re doing, that we’re capable of making sound and effective decisions, and that we can lead them toward success. 

Second, it means people must believe we’re benevolent.  They must believe we care about them – both as employees and as people.  They must believe we’ll take into account their well-being when making decisions and when asking them to commit to our decisions.  If a leader doesn’t demonstrate care for her people, then her people will necessarily need to focus more of their time and energy on self-preservation and self-protection and less time and energy doing their jobs.  They won’t take risks, innovate, or speak truth to power – for fear of standing alone.

Third, it means people must believe we have integrity.   They have to believe that our competence and our benevolence will be translated into actual action in a consistent manner.  We may be skilled and we may care – but if we’re not reliable and consistent in our expressions of our skills and care, we won’t be trusted.

Competence, benevolence, and integrity – these should be the priorities of our trust portfolios.  They should be our focus each and every day – because they’re the standards our people are using to judge our trustworthiness.

Next time: The Two Essentials of Building Competence-Based Trust

Daniel L. LeBreton is an organizational psychologist and the founder of Impavid Consulting, LLC – a consultancy dedicated to developing leaders who engage people, dignify work, and inspire excellence. Daniel has worked with hundreds of leadership and executives in organizations ranging from small non-profits to Fortune 500 companies. In addition to running Impavid, Daniel teaches at Vanderbilt University and serves as an advisor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.