Why Trustworthiness Is More Important Than Trust For Leaders

Theoretical definitions may be helpful, but trust as a practical matter is something that is experienced one encounter at a time. More important than trust for leaders is trustworthiness, the capacity to be relied on as honest and reliable. Trustworthiness is a verb, a cascade of decisions based on other decisions observed over time and evidence assembled over a multitude of experiences.

What are the practical elements that go into trustworthiness? Trustworthiness in the workplace is a combination of three variables moderated by risk. Leaders who aspire to trustworthiness demonstrate Integrity, Reliability, and Stewardship. The element moderating these variables is risk.  The variables are combined into the following equation:

Trustworthiness    =      Integrity + Reliability + Stewardship                                                                                                     Risk

Here’s what it meant by each of these variables.

A leader with Integrity has standards. Standards enable leaders to earn trust. Standards stand up and proclaim: Here’s what I stand for; here’s how I stand apart; and this is where we stand together. One standard is worth a thousand promises. Integrity is the fundamental value that followers seek in their leader. It is the trademark of an individual who demonstrates sound moral and ethical principles at work. Integrity requires candor.  Candor is the foundation on which teams build relationships, trust, and effective communications. Leaders who withhold candor for the sake of short-term harmony quickly lose the trust of their followers.

“The more self-absorbed leaders are, the greater the risk that they will act in self-interest rather than the interest of the team.”

Reliability has to do with dependable trustworthiness. Trust is built over time. When a product is reliable, we trust it to perform consistently. When a leader is reliable, we trust him or her to do the right thing consistently. How well do you keep your commitments? How well do your actions match your words, and how well do your words match your actions?

Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible management of resources with equal measures of humility, selflessness, and servant leadership. Stewardship increases as followers learn—through your actions—that you are motivated by shared interests, that you have the other’s needs in mind as well as your own. Stewardship calls for leaders to be outward-gazing, attentive to the needs of the team, and generous.

Risk—the possibility that something unwelcome or unpleasant will happen—is the fourth variable that impacts trustworthiness. Experience demonstrates that trust becomes more challenging as the stakes increase. Trust always involves an element of risk because sometimes our trust is betrayed. Trust would be beside the point if all assurances were honored. The greater the chance of loss, the less willing we are to trust. Risk in this context also measures the leader’s selfishness, self-absorption, and tendency to gaze inward stead of outward. The more self-absorbed leaders are, the greater the risk that they will act in self-interest rather than the interest of the team.

Note the equation has three variables in the numerator (the top of the line).  It also has one variable—risk—in the denominator (below the line).  Increasing the value of the elements in the numerator adds to overall trustworthiness. Increasing the value of the denominator—risk—decreases overall trustworthiness.  The bottom line: the greater the risk involved, the more leaders need to demonstrate integrity, reliability, and stewardship for trust to be established and sustained.