Can You Teach a Leader to Inspire Trust?

Picture a leader walking into the office on a Monday morning. Coffee in hand, bag over his shoulder, AidPods in his ears, he appears ready for the day. He’s lost in thought, almost frowning as he walks through an office full of people and chatter. He doesn’t stop to acknowledge others, and he doesn’t say good morning to anyone. Quietly, he makes his way to his office, shuts the door, and starts to work. 

Does this bring to mind a warm or trusting figure who can lead by example? The short answer is: probably not. This is a description of someone Brian Lawrence, a leadership coach at Sounding Bound, once coached. But Lawrence said his coachee “isn’t who you would think. He’s just not very demonstrative, and always looks like he’s frowning and unapproachable when he’s actually just thinking.” 

Trust isn’t always about being truthful or dishonest. More often, it’s about the small behaviors people exhibit that compound over time to build a sense of confidence in their leadership. Leaders inspire trust in others through the subtleties of everyday life. At times, they can evoke distrust just as subtly. 

Research conducted by Harvard Business Review in 2020 suggests that the hybrid work environment and tumultuous and uncertain sociopolitical climate brought on by the COVID pandemic left the global workforce with a palpable level of distrust. To be a leader of people, means it is the leader’s responsibility to reignite people’s trust. To do that, they must lead by example.

What is the role of trust at work?

Leaders must be able to build a culture of trust in the workplace; it’s foundational for successful leadership. Interpersonal relationships, communications, and workplace culture are built in response to a sense of trust, or a lack thereof. When a workplace and its leaders model behaviors that counteract trust, it is not a psychologically safe environment for employees. People may not feel secure enough to ask questions, admit their mistakes, or develop meaningful relationships. In other words, a functional workplace requires trust. In fact, it is impossible to build and lead high functioning organizations and teams without it.

How does distrust manifest at work?

In his work, Lawrence has come across a variety of workplace cultures, leadership styles, and leader personalities. He says distrust frequently comes from overtly malignant acts like lying, setting people against one another, or exploiting others’ insecurities to manipulate their sense of belonging and self-worth. But just as often, it may come from non-verbal expressions like his coachee’s frowns or scowls, which instill discomfort in others and inadvertently set a poor tone for the workplace. Distrust at work can take many forms including but not limited to:

  • Competition for the sake of competition
  • Lack of accountability when mistakes are made
  • Taking credit for others’ ideas, or not acknowledging their contributions
  • Being disconnected from the daily realities of the people you lead
  • Withholding information — even if the intention is to shield others from bad news
  • Micromanagement or limiting others’ autonomy
  • Blind confidence that becomes arrogance 
  • The inability or unwillingness to lead by example

What does trust at work look like?

Trust is much harder to build than it is to break. But when leaders do things right, no one forgets the impact. Lawrence once had a manager whose ability to inspire trust in the workplace and connect with others stood above all. He recalls his manager saying, “If you have an idea, try it out. If it works, come back and share it. If it doesn’t, come back and tell us. Either way, we’ll learn something.” 

With this kind of leadership, everyone feels equally comfortable sharing their wins, as well as their lessons and learnings. Learning becomes a part of the culture of work, and people can begin to trust themselves even when learning results in mistakes or failures. 

A trusting workplace also has a shared purpose and goals towards which people work collectively. It’s an environment where leaders encourage their teams and make them feel heard. People are free to make mistakes and learn from them. They are able to express their ideas openly. They can give and receive feedback constructively. 

When leaders lead by example and behave in ways that inspire trust, they create an environment of empathy, listening, growth and learning, and genuine well-being. When trust exists, healthy dialogue and debate can take place to advance the work without people taking it personally.

Can leaders learn to inspire trust?

Although trust in the workplace might seem like an elusive, intangible concept that is difficult to teach, leaders can develop simple habits and behaviors that inspire others’ trust. As a coach, Lawrence prioritizes a few focus areas with his coachees to help them develop more trusting relationships at work:

  • Building empathy: More than once, Lawrence has come across people who say they genuinely aren’t able to relate to what other people are feeling and believe they are void of empathy. His strategy isn’t to tell these people to fake it till they make it. Instead, he said, “If empathy doesn’t come naturally to them, it can come practically through their behaviors when they ask people about their lives, actively listen, and engage others.”
  • Engaging constructively with conflict: Conflict is natural in any workplace. But leaders who inspire trust are able to move through it productively, and guide others to compromises that might even feel like win-win scenarios. 
  • Communicating effectively: Transparency is vital for leaders who want to cultivate a culture of trust. When things are going awry, instead of sugarcoating or withholding information, leaders can model vulnerability and honesty, and invite their teams to put their heads together to find solutions.
  • Building situational awareness: All leaders have their own styles. But great leaders are not married to their individualism. Rather, they seek to understand the impact they have on others, are mindful of others’ communication styles, and are able to adapt their behavior based on the individual situation or person in front of them. 
  • Practicing humility: A bit of groundedness can go a long way to showcase humanness for leaders who otherwise seem to always have it all together. In fact, admitting when they’re unsure and still in the process of learning can be the perfect way to lead by example and inspire not only trust, but a culture of growth in an organization. 

Sometimes, leaders can foster a sense of trust in the workplace through simple acts like taking a genuine interest in people and making an effort to understand what makes them tick. Sometimes, trust is broken by more complicated acts of micromanagement or withholding information. Trust is extremely delicate, yet it’s essential to high functioning organizations. 

It can be difficult to build trust and incredibly easy to break it. However, as elusive as it might seem, leaders can be taught to inspire trust and lead by example. To learn how leadership coaching can help leaders inspire trust at work, contact Sounding Board today.

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