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An illustration of the word 'trust'


The Most Important Skill for Great Leaders? Trustworthiness.

It doesn’t matter how competent you are as a leader, you won’t get very far if your team doesn’t trust you.

What makes a great leader? You are probably thinking it’s something buzzword-worthy like confidence.  Or maybe vision.  Or emotional intelligence—you hear about that one all the time.  For sure, those are all good qualities for a leader to have, but the answer is actually trustworthiness. Technically, it’s not just being trustworthy that is key, but being seen as trustworthy.

The question “Can I trust you?” is always on our minds whenever we interact with other people (particularly when we meet them for the first time) though we usually aren’t consciously aware of asking it. Studies suggest that in order to figure out whether or not someone is trustworthy, we analyze their words and deeds to find answers to two questions: “Do you have good intentions toward me—are you a friend or a foe?” and “Do you have what it takes to act on those intentions?”

So how do we find the answers? Decades of research show that we are all highly tuned-in to the warmth and competence of those around us. Warmth is being friendly, kind, loyal, and empathetic. It is taken as evidence that you have good intentions toward others. Your competence—being intelligent, creative, skilled, effective—is taken as evidence that you can act on your intentions if you want to.   Competent people are therefore valuable allies or potent enemies.  Less competent people are objects of compassion, or scorn.

When your team trusts you as a leader, it increases commitment to team goals. Communication improves, and ideas flow more freely, increasing creativity and productivity.  Perhaps most important, in the hands of a trusted leader, employees are more comfortable with change and more willing to embrace a new vision. When your team doesn’t trust you, you don’t get their best effort. You’ll then find yourself unable to inspire, influence, and create real change—an ineffective leader.

“When your team doesn’t trust you, you don’t get their best effort.”

We can all agree that trust is good.  The problem, however, is that we are so eager to prove that we “know what we’re doing” as leaders that we neglect the arguably more important part of the trust formula: proving that we will act with our colleagues’ interests in mind. In other words, trust is an afterthought.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, author of many of the key studies on trust and leadership, has argued that when you project competence before warmth, you run the risk of appearing cold and eliciting fear from your employees.  They might respect you, but fearful employees are rarely able to work at their best. And you certainly can’t blame them for wanting to jump ship once an offer to work for someone who doesn’t make them constantly anxious comes along.

“Fearful employees are rarely able to work at their best.”

In a nutshell, being competent is certainly important, but it must be coupled with the sense that you have your employees welfare and interests in mind and that what they experience matters to you. Think about how you can use the following strategies to up your trust quotient:

1. Pay Attention

Make eye contact, and hold it—both when you are speaking and listening.  Nod from time to time to show you are understanding what’s being said to you (and if you don’t understand, ask). Smile, especially when they do.  And above all else, really focus and internalize what is being said to you—everyone needs to feel that they have been heard, even when you can’t give them what they are asking for.

2. Trust Them First 

Human beings have a deeply-rooted tendency toward reciprocity.  We are naturally inclined to want to do favors, give gifts, and work to promote those who have done these things for us in the past. And the same holds true when it comes to trust—we are more likely to feel we can trust someone who has trusted us first.  So assign tasks and projects that reflect this trust. Socially, share personal (but appropriate!) stories, talk about your struggles and challenges, let them see your fallible, human side. Allowing yourself to be a bit vulnerable is a great way to project warmth.

3. Show Empathy

As a leader it’s easy to have a laser-like focus on the tasks at hand. But take the time to mentally put yourself in your employees’ shoes, to really try to grasp their perspective.  Use phrases like “I imagine you must have felt…” to convey that empathy directly.

All that said, if you just aren’t the warm-and-fuzzy type, and maybe talking about “feelings” makes you uncomfortable, fear not.  Evidence suggests that the moral character aspects of warmth—the sense that you are fair, principled, courageous, and honest—are also highly effective for establishing trust. In other words, to get your employees to trust you, be someone they can always count on to do the right thing.

How about you?

How have great leaders earned your trust?

Comments (5)
  • Soon Min

    Earlier in my career, I used to look at leadership as something pristine, with then unrealistic expectations of what they should be like. Eg; Inspiring, Nurturing, Providing guidance, etc. Needless to say, this led to much disappointment not only towards my seniors, but eventually towards myself as I became one.

    Over time, I grew to have a more accepting view that with the complexities of work and life, leadership is extremely challenging. The leaders that made a difference to me reflect one or a combination of what you outlined above.

    The other aspect that I’d like to add is Consistency. Does that mean that even an a$$ of a leader can gain trust? Strangely yes. Despite the flaws in ourselves and others in leadership positions, I found it comforting that the person was ‘the way that they are’. It doesn’t necessarily excuse bad behavior, nor am I suggesting tolerating outright bad leaders, but it nevertheless allowed me to work with people well enough because I found a sense of stability and security in knowing who they were and how they behave.

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  • Kultar Singh Ruprai

    A great read.

    I agree with the fact that a great leader should encompass all those traits mentioned as well as other not mentioned, however I disagree with ‘trustworthiness’ being THE number one most important skill.

    I can recall reading and watching Tony Robbins on how he believes the most important trait or skill a leader can possess is influence, and breaks down why using clear examples such as Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa and other well known figures. You don’t have to believe or trust someone to be influence or inspired….

    “Persuading others to take actions that move an outcome forward is what drives governments, schools, peace organizations, stock markets, court systems, and even parenting.

    Every great, worthwhile and notable deed that has ever been accomplished throughout history comes back to the skill of influencing others.”

    Of course this completely depends on the individual but I guess if you are influenced to be inspired then you don’t need to ‘trust’… for example If you can influence someone enough in a positive way to take action for the greater good, once they
    see the results they will begin to trust you…

  • Louis Novick

    I guess it really depends in what context we refer to when deciding what people look for in a leader. For example, many Dictators throughout history are considered leaders by their people but are followed largely in part due to fear. A parent leading their child can exert their influence over a child simply due to the fact they are the parent in the relationship.

    I think that in the business world, the most important characteristic a leader can have is being trustworthy. If your employees don’t trust you as a leader they will falter in their work, become less efficient and eventually leave for something better.

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    Trust can be build not just for an overnight. It takes a long workout to acquire this huge thing. But now, the point is, even it is a long workout, building it is so much handful than waiting for it.
    I cannot build trust just for a day, but i can build trust in a snap of a second when he deserves, too.
    For employees, don’t look after the price, just enjoy what you’re a doing, seek help if necessary, ask questions for the betterment of your job and lastly believe in yourself. Through these, working will never be that difficult and building your credibility to your boss will be up next, followed by trust abruptly.
    And for employers, trust is not a measure of the employees, it’s the measure of you, yourself and the company as a whole.

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