Defining Trust And How To Achieve It

On one level, people understand trust as a character trait that is made of up of other character traits such as honesty, integrity, authenticity, transparency, fairness, caring and reliability. Questions of trust are central to literally every decision that human beings make, from buying a washing machine to selecting a marriage partner. Trust has peculiar qualities. Trust cannot be purchased, but it is essentially free. Is there anything else in the world that comes without cost but must be earned over time? Trust itself is priceless, but the loss of trust imposes measurable costs.

Trust is at once an abstraction (an invisible concept as opposed to something concrete that can actually be touched) and yet trust is a quality that most people intuitively understand and rely on daily for important decisions. Trust cannot be demanded; it must be earned. It cannot be requested; it must be demonstrated.

Trust is one of those concepts that is often experienced by its absence. The withdrawal or denial of trust is a memorable experience that most people recognize. “Trust is like the air we breathe,” observed Warren Buffet. “When it’s present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.” But maybe trust is not as elusive as the Oracle of Omaha claims. When trust is present, everybody notices because workers are relentlessly focused on responding to the needs of customers; fewer employees are looking over their shoulders or watching their backs. In a high-trust environment, workers can focus on the mission because they have confidence that their trusted leaders “have their backs.”

“Successful leaders bring a powerful combination of strategy and trust to their organizations, but if a leader must be without one of the two elements, let them be without  strategy.”

In the business world, trust takes on particular dimensions. Trust is the foundation for all successful leaders. It’s the central character requirement. In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey insists that the “first job of a leader—at work or at home—is to inspire trust. It’s to bring out the best in people by entrusting them with meaningful stewardships, and to create an environment in which high-trust interaction inspires creativity and possibility.”

Successful leaders bring a powerful combination of strategy and trust to their organizations, but if a leader must be without one of the two elements, let them be without the strategy.

Trust is the currency of teamwork and interpersonal relationships. Trust determines whether a leader can realize the three responsibilities of leadership:

  • To create a culture of guidance (praise and criticism) that keeps colleagues moving in the right direction and to hold out accountability
  • To appreciate what motivates each team member
  • To drive results collaboratively

None of these goals can be realized without the strong interpersonal relationships nourished by trust. None of it can be accomplished without the leader sharing more than just their “work” self. Trust requires intimacy and the willingness, on occasion, to be vulnerable, as in apologizing when the leader makes as mistake.

Another dimension of trust is candor when holding team members accountable, especially when they fail to meet criteria or performance goals mutually agreed on. Stewardship requires leaders to make difficult membership decisions when a member’s performance falters. Nothing destroys trust in a high-performing team more than a leader tolerating sub-par performers.

Consider these rules for candor and accountability:

  • Share relevant information even if it feels risky to do so.
  • Speak to the whole team; avoid sidebar conversations.
  • Maintain confidentiality.
  • Hoard your mistakes, share your successes.
  • Focus on winning together. “Your results are my results.”
  • Treat everyone equally.
  • Don’t tolerate misconduct, especially by your best performers.
  • Promote “we” and “our” instead of “me” and “mine.”

Trust is the very foundation on which companies are built. Without it, you have nothing.