Trust is the most powerful aspect of leadership. I’ve blogged before about the importance of trust, of how cultivating trust gives you the ability to more effectively influence teams and organizations, and can ultimately drive truly durable results. But how does one develop trust? How do we build relationships that have trust at the core?
In order to know how to develop trust, we need to talk about what trust actually is. I believe that trust is the perception of motivation. In other words, our internal yardstick for measuring how much we trust someone is based on our understanding of their motivations. When motivations aren’t made clear, we will make our own assumptions about motivation; often not in a good way.
As a leader, this can pose a bit of a problem. No matter how well-meaning we might believe we are, if we haven’t done the work to establish our motivations, trust will be held in reserve.
It’s important to note here that trusting someone and liking someone are not the same things. In fact, we can like people that we don’t trust and trust people that we don’t like. We can have common interests or a common background with others, but this often gets conflated with motivation. We shortcut our perception by thinking along the lines of “they are like me so they must be motivated like me.” We should not rely on this shortcut (and in fact this is a core element of implicit bias, but that’s a topic for another time).
So, you need to make your motivations clear in order to develop trust, and ultimately those motivations need to have your team’s interests in mind. The simplest way to do this is to state your motivations in any interaction. This doesn’t need to be a long oratory and can typically be handled with a single sentence. Instead of saying something like “You all need to work weekends for the next month” and leaving it at that, explain why you’re asking. Saying instead something like “If we don’t get this project completed on time, our competition will beat us and potentially put us out of business. We need to do whatever it takes to get this done” will go a lot further in helping people understand that you’re not just trying to bully them but that there’s a general concern for everyone’s well being.
This mindset is in stark contrast to how we should perceive others. As a leader, you should assume positive motivations in the people that you lead until proven that you can’t. This means we need to take what can feel like harsh criticism, questioning our intelligence, challenging our direction etc. in good spirit. If our team members care enough to stay and criticize instead of leave for greener pastures, it’s worth understanding criticism in the context of them actually wanting to improve their work environment.
To close, I want to again emphasize that we can’t assume the reverse. It’s not enough to simply mean well and hope that everyone sees that. This is where transparency becomes important, especially when you are too organizationally distant to have a relationship with everyone in your organization. Being up front about the “why” of decisions, actions, policies, etc. goes a long way, especially when followed up with talking about the impact of those decisions once made. Also, understand that if you’re not equally transparent about all categories of decisions, the trust from your organization can be categorized as well, not generalized.
It may not seem fair that we have to carry the load in our professional relationships, but that’s part of what it means to lead. Instead of worrying about why you’re being misunderstood, focus on being clear in your motivations and you’ll go far in developing trust and building an effective team.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.