Trust me, I’m a leader

Accepting you can’t please everyone is at the core of becoming a good leader says John McLachlan as he explores the importance of trust in leadership

Pretty much any book or article you read about leadership glorifies trust as an essential trait. The challenge however, as many leaders working in the real world will testify, is being trusted by a wide range of people, who may have different interpretations of what trust means to them and therefore what they expect from you as a leader. 

So, what is trust? At a basic human level, trust is about predictability. Psychologically, humans like to be able to predict as it helps us feel safe in who we are and what is happening around us. This drive for predictability begins in childhood where we read the world around us and seek to predict what will happen next. Of course, we are just guessing. However, whether our guesses are accurate or not they build up a picture of the world that we rely on; we have sausage and beans on Tuesday, Mum gets home from work at 5, people do what they say they’ll do, or not.  From these experiences, we generate patterns of prediction that enable us to trust what will and will not happen. This ability to trust and predict helps us alleviate stress and conserve energy as we’re not trying to evaluate every situation or guard against something negative occurring.

In the world of work, trust is more than just a nice thing to have. When people trust the organisation, each other and their leadership, things get done faster, better and much more efficiently.

Accepting you can’t please everyone is a cornerstone moment in every leaders’ journey

In organisations there are essentially two types of trust that can be established, people can trust other people or they trust the rules and processes. People need trust in leaders to feel safe in the organisational environment. This in turn allows them to focus their energy on their work.  Without that trust, and predictability, employees will focus their time and attention on what is happening around them, who is doing what, what this means for them and what they need to do to feel safe.  You might not trust your colleagues, but if you know that they can’t get in the way of your work, you will be less concerned. Rules and processes can help build this trust and consistency and they also avoid trust being totally dependent on personalities. This is a good thing, but organisations very often rely too heavily on their policies and processes to create trust when there is a responsibility on everyone, especially leaders, to do their bit.

In understanding what trust means at this deeper level, you may conclude that it is difficult to build with a diverse group. This is true but accepting you can’t please everyone is a cornerstone moment in every leaders’ journey. A huge part of developing the ability to be trustworthy is knowing and understanding your own patterns, values and motives and then behaving in line with these consistently and with integrity. That is why you can’t learn to be trustworthy as a skill. If you do something that is not aligned with who you are, you will be inconsistent, and this will erode trust.

Here are some ways leaders can develop trust. Get the basics right, help your team to be able to predict you. Turn up on time or always be 10 minutes late, be relaxed and humorous or be serious and direct, but make sure they know where they stand and what to expect from you.

Do your best to be consistent and fair. Both these terms are highly subjective so be explicit about what you mean by this and if you have exceptions, then explain them clearly. The purpose of doing this is not to get people to agree with you, but so that they understand you. If you say you will do something – do it.  If for some reason you can’t or change your mind – say so – explain it, don’t justify it. 

Avoid unintentionally eroding trust. Think about things that are most important to others and prioritise them. For example, don’t cancel one-to-one meetings at the last minute or decide to postpone that presentation your team has carefully prepared for you. If you need to flex things, pick things that are less important and if that’s unavoidable, be sure to offer a genuine explanation or reassurances that it will be picked up later. Maintain boundaries, for example, trust can be eroded unintentionally when you talk negatively about someone else as people will assume you do this with everyone. 

This all takes courage to do, especially if you are someone who wants to be liked. The need to be liked is a real barrier to being trustworthy because you will flip flop to suit the situation that will fill the need to be liked or avoid being unpopular. This will make you inconsistent and therefore people will trust you less.

Finally, some people will never trust. If they were brought up in a chaotic way or had lots of changes in their early life, they may always be sceptical and never trust you, or anyone.

I would argue that building trust is not hard, but it does take conscious effort, the willingness to get to know and accept yourself and be confident enough in yourself that you are not dependent on others to validate you. This is often the personal development work for leaders which can be both challenging and the most impactful.

John McLachlan is co-author with Karen Meager of Real Leaders: a practical guide to the essential qualities of effective leadership. They are co-founders of Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy  

John McLachlan

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