Leaders, Is Trust Part of Your Bottom Line?

The deficit of trust at this moment poses a great danger to our society.   We seem to have forgotten how to talk to people with different world views, let alone trust them to do the “right” thing.  This extends from a distrust of elected officials, the media, leaders, to our neighbors and our colleagues.  That’s a lot to tackle, but I’d wager that it’s worth every ounce of energy, intelligence and social capital we have. And, while the problems may seem insurmountable, there are a couple of places to start where we can build the muscle we need as individuals to go the distance as we work to repair our world.


There is so much we can do in our places of work to create cultures of trust. First, banish gossip. I mean it.  Have a zero-tolerance policy.  Make it a capital offense, punishable by unfavorable reviews, lack of upward mobility options or even firing. That’s the stick. The carrot is lavishing appreciation in all kinds of ways on people who demonstrate the courage to bring problems or issues to the source (the other person), have difficult conversations in a timely, respectful and solutions-oriented manner and are a great listeners. 


"In terms of building trust, the way you treat people has just as much impact [on your performance] as your knowledge and expertise. You may be a whiz in your specific area, but treat people poorly and their trust in you will plunge." (“Leadership: Building Trust Means Better Listening”, Forbes.com, April 18, 2011)


As leaders, you play a significant role in defining culture, and your words, actions and demeanor are powerful signals to the entire organization. Clients often ask me how I know something about them. Usually, my answer is “because you told me.”  How do I know? Deep listening. It’s a skill anyone can develop. But, it requires that you want to do it, and believe in its importance and efficacy.  Set an example:

Put away your phone!

Listen intently when someone brings you an issue

Take notes, if necessary

Prohibit interruptions (not even a “but, but…”)

Mirror back what you heard

active listening

Switch places. Do it again. When people know they’ve been heard, trust can follow. If you don’t agree, say so; don’t harbor resentments, swallow your real thoughts or in any way pretend to think or feel something you don’t. Why? Because those feelings don’t actually go away – they seep out.

I learned this lesson the way many of us do: painfully.  As an advisor and coach, I'm paid to offer advice and guidance based on my experience and my observations. I also have the curse of being a people pleaser.  These two things were on a collision course early in my consulting career, when I failed to share my true opinions about how a client conducted his board meetings. Instead of offering constructive advice about how to improve what I deemed to be sloppy and ineffective meetings, I opted for a “lighter” touch that would not offend and would maintain my status as a beloved consultant. Wrong! My contract was not renewed at the end its first cycle - not because I did not deliver, but because I neither provided my full value nor did I successfully mask my true thoughts and feelings about his leadership. Hiding your feelings is dishonest, and it erodes trust. It takes courage to be truly honest, and it’s also what many of us are being paid to do – leverage our knowledge, expertise and insights for the good of the team.

Other essentials to cultivating trust include being clear about your intentions. Sticking to your word. And, while it may sound un-sexy, being predictable. People will trust you if your behavior (how you make decisions, how you run meetings, how you handle tough situations) follows a pattern they can recognize and respect. 


Recently, I had the privilege of designing and facilitating a meeting between two partners – co-founders – of a significant national initiative. Over the course of the past year, they had been working to get liftoff, but many critically important issues remained unsaid and were impeding progress. Things like who would be in charge of what? What would reporting lines look like? Which elements were immutable, which were open to debate? Over the course of a lively, intense afternoon, we revealed their deepest concerns and desires. This opened the way to create a trusting and productive relationship that will have far-reaching benefits for the organization – its staff and constituents – and the public. Absent this trust, I’m certain that a significant level of resources, including time, talent, money and good will, would have been squandered. 

A culture of trust in an organization yields incredible results.  In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the author noted that, "Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout." (“The Neuroscience of Trust”, by Paul J. Zak, HBR.org, January-February Issue 2017

Pretty impressive figures.

Building a culture of trust is good for the bottom line, it’s great for morale, and it is outstanding for your level of satisfaction and accomplishment. There are many things we can’t control, but if we start in our spheres of influence to cultivate and model behavior that is filled with integrity, compassion and honesty, we create a powerful ripple that can, indeed, lead to healthier relationships and stronger communal bonds.

Next up?  Cultivating trust in yourself. Stay tuned!