Leadership: What is The Essence of Building Trust

Being able to build trust is regarded as a crucial element of successful leadership. Especially in today’s globalized business world with its high rate of change and its cross-cultural challenges. But what is the essence of building trust? What does it actually mean? How does it work? Why is it often so difficult to establish, but so easy to lose?

These days we hear and read a lot about the need for trust. Trust in politicians, trust in the financial sector, trust in emerging markets, trust in new business partners, etc. Apparently there is a tendency to believe that we nowadays suffer in many areas from a lack of trust, and that it needs to be restored. We hear leaders say ‘we need to have more trust in each other if we want to create a successful future’.

Of course, for organizations, its people and teams, it is absolutely vital to have trust in each other in order to create successful collaboration and business results. But for leaders it is important to understand what building trust boils down to. In this regards I’d like to challenge a persistent assumption about building trust: the assumption that a lack of trust is bad and that having more trust is good. Is this really the case?

Do we really need to have more trust between people, or do we need to increase something else?

In my work over the years with leaders and their teams all over the world I have witnessed many situations where trust was declining, in the leadership, between people or groups. In many of these situations the decline of trust was actually necessary. It would have been wrong and even dangerous for the company to keep trust under the current situation. To put it differently, I have seen as many situations where a company gets into serious trouble because of blind trust between people for too long, as I have seen companies getting into trouble because of too little trust in each other for too long.

Apparently the amount of trust itself is not the essence, but the reasons why we trust someone. Not so strange. You would probably not teach your children to trust anyone, you would probably teach them when to trust someone and why.

We have specific sensors that scan whether or not we can trust someone. We use these sensors actively and subconsciously, when we’re in a meeting, when we have a one-on-one, when we read an email, when we watch an interview on TV, when we read the newspapers.

What do our sensors scan? They do not scan for trust! They scan for trustworthiness!

If you want to build trust as a leader, you have to be trustworthy.

I observe many leaders who regularly step into the pitfall of emphasizing the importance of building mutual trust, without paying sufficient attention to trustworthiness and how others perceive that.

Now, the question is of course ‘What is trustworthiness?’ How can we define it?

I like to use the three ingredients Onora O’Neill uses to define trustworthiness: Reliability, Competence, and Honesty. I translate these three as follows (in my own words):

1)   Reliability

Do what you say you would do. Stick to agreements. Show your commitment by your actions.

2)   Competence

Be competent in the matters at stake. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and be open about it. Don’t overestimate your competence.

3)   Honesty

Tell the truth. Don’t lie. Distinguish fact from perception.

These three ingredients provide a powerful checklist for leaders and their teams. It can facilitate an open discussion with each other about the perceived level of trustworthiness and its effect on mutual trust. And be careful: for leaders of cross-cultural teams it is important to be sensitive to the different ways these three elements can be perceived across cultures (read more here about how to build trust in cross-cultural teams, and how misinterpretations of dishonesty can hinder teams).

Successful leaders understand that building trust depends heavily on establishing trustworthiness in the behavior and actions of everybody involved. Starting with their trustworthiness as a leader.

“When in doubt, tell the truth.” – Mark Twain

What is your experience with building trust and trustworthiness? Please share your thoughts with us.

Did you value this article? Share it with others by using #LeadershipWatch.
If you want to receive upcoming LeadershipWatch articles and news in your mailbox simply register at the top of this page. Your personal information will be kept strictly confidential.
Photo: TerryJohnston/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad is a global leadership advisor, change leader, leadership team facilitator, executive coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization feel free to contact him here.

6 Comments on “Leadership: What is The Essence of Building Trust

  1. Pingback: Leadership: What is The Essence of Building Trust | Lawrence Atkinson

  2. thanks for your great article i thinks its very helpful , you are one of my best leaders in my way to learn the basics of leadership


  3. Pingback: Importance of Trust in Leadership - iNewMedia.org

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: