Leadership Behaviors That Build Employee Trust

It is said that trust is a lot like oxygen. Everybody knows when its present and everybody can
feel it when it’s not. It is also the main reason professional (and some personal) relationships fail. Trust is reciprocal, like a two-way street or bridge built to future predictability.

If we had an analogy to financial markets, it would be like the Dow composite. The market is efficient and discounts sentiment about future earnings. If the market believes the potential for future earnings are good, then share prices go up. Likewise, trust is also a reflective of the potential for future relationship interactions. We have a sort of “moving” average for organizational trust commonly referred to as “engagement” surveys. While they serve a purpose, they are not taken nearly frequently enough to accurately gauge “organizational sentiment”.

          Below are 5 behaviors to consistently engage in to keep your “trust average” up

1) Tell the truth. All Teams have Super Stars, Rising Start, Sedentary Stars, and Falling Stars. The
Team is watching how the leader leads. Spend more time with those who are getting things done
and less with those who are not.

2) Communicate roles and responsibilities. Provide consistent timely and accurate feedback. This is feedback that is not based on “noise’ or “half” a story but that has integrity and gravitas.

3) Create a workplace culture that values relationships. Relationships are “currency” that business is transacted in. Focus on maintaining good ones, come what may, with those who are performers. It is the leaders job to ensure that this happens by creating time and space to make it happen.

4) Be fair and open. Operate transparently to the extent you can. People need to trust what they see. When they don’t things crash. Can you say Arthur Andersen? This means no hidden agendas or favoritism or perceived favoritism, Nip that in the bud. People respond well to a basic social contract of “transparency” providing is more than just talk.

5) Model the behaviors you seek. It is the leader’s responsibility every day to act to model the types of behaviors that support the Team’s Mission and Vision. This is what achieving success with both is all about and you as leader have a “fiduciary” responsibility to make it happen.


The most valuable asset you have is the imagination of your workforce. There are two key ingredients that develop and deploy the full power of a team’s collective imagination: 1. time to think and 2. trust on the team.

What kills that creativity? What stops people from openly communicating, collaborating and creating together? What will keep the best ideas locked inside the imaginations of the people on your team, or worse, deploy their imaginations to undercut, undermine and obstruct the creative process?

Broken trust.

Broken trust erases the posture of openness in which creativity arises. Betrayal is a very powerful human experience. Many describe the experience of betrayal as worse than loss, because it involves the reordering of our sense of ourselves. When someone breaks our trust they also break inside of us the confidence we have in our relationships and our instincts about how and who to trust.

The implications for trust on teams therefore, is great.

When we create climates of trust we open another level of capacity, competence and creativity. And we also open the door for disappointment, resentment, hurt feelings, and broken trust, all of which, in the right combination, can leave a person or a team feeling betrayed.

Here is what you need to know.

It does not matter if betrayal or broken trust, deceit or deception were your intent. What matters is how you engage with your team once they have interpreted something negatively, and they are trying to make sense of it. It matters a great deal how you behave when people are trying to make sense of their experiences. This meaning-making time is where their beliefs are formed.

Here are some tips that can help you navigate the waters of broken trust on teams, so that you can repair relationships quickly and restore the team to its high-performing strength.

Once trust is broken, stay open!

Trust takes time to build and only a moment to eradicate. Here are some steps to take when miscommunication breaks down:

·       Quickly address and begin to repair broken trust when misunderstandings occur. It may be that both of you need a day to cool off and gain perspective, but don’t wait too long.

·       Communicate that you care. Apologize for the misunderstanding. “I am sorry,” goes a long way.  “I missed the communication on this and I am sorry.”

·       Make time to listen. Soon. Notice I did not say make time to talk. We must listen first to understand.

Some things to keep in mind:

·       Human beings make meaning out of the events in our lives. This is both a blessing and a curse. In her book, Rising Strong Berne Brown has a great phrase that can help us to begin sharing some of the hard things we are thinking about someone else. She invites us to begin the conversation with the phrase: “The story I am making up about this is…..” Somehow this phrase lets us share hard feelings more candidly, yet with a bit of kindness and humor. We allow the other person to have a better picture of what the situation really feels like. Sugar coating the truth doesn’t get us as far as candor does. I’ve tried it, and can assure you this phrase somehow allows and unlocks more candor, and releases us from a posture of judgment and defensiveness. Try it!

·       We judge ourselves by our intent and others by our experience. You may not have intended to lie, mislead, break trust, or betray your colleague, but those are words I often hear behind closed doors. They express how the other person interprets what has happened to them. Remember, it is their interpretation that is driving how they feel about and respond to you, not your intentions.

In short, once trust is broken, go carefully and swiftly to address it, otherwise the breach of trust grows swiftly. It takes much longer to break through hardened feelings that grow with time. Once a story has been written about why we did what we did, it becomes harder for us to challenge those stories by simply listening, caring and asking questions.

Yes, it can be very hard to listen to and acknowledge another person’s story about us, but when we do we are able to do something important with that other person. We can co-create a future together.

We do that by acknowledging and asking questions:

“Wow. I didn’t understand how this came across to you. [acknowledge]

That must have been very hard. I am sorry for that. [apologize]

I don’t want to come across that way again. What can I do differently in the future?” [ask]

What do you do when misunderstandings arise? When trust gets broken?

·       Stay open.

·       Listen.

·       Acknowledge that person’s real experience.

·       Apologize for the misunderstanding.

·       Ask, “What can we do differently together now?”

What comes to us on the other side of these hard experiences can actually be quite rewarding. Like the bones of the body that knit back together more strongly in the broken places, relationships that successfully navigate through misunderstandings and broken trust develop something beyond imagination and creativity, trust and collegiality.  They develop resilience, assurance, and strength.

Trust given is one thing. Trust tested and retained or even trust shattered and restored is another level of relationship entirely. And this is where the real promise and potential begins: on the other side of, “What happens when it breaks?” lies the question, “What is possible now?”  Often the answer is,“A great deal more than before.”


What does it take to get people to bring their best new ideas to the table? How can leaders foster creativity and innovation in ways that deliver results? We hear all the catch phrases and buzz words, but the question I hear from leaders most often is simply, “How can I get started?”

There is a simple two word answer to that question, and it doesn’t require big capital investments and lots of infrastructure. It does take intentional effort.

Those two words are:  Time and Trust.

Time and trust: these two ingredients create climates within organizations, teams and individuals that allow them to engage in several practices critical to the creative process.

When time and trust are present, people can:

1.       think strategically, as opposed to reacting with fear or out of habit

2.       freely ask questions, give feedback and offer insights and ideas with a sense of open curiosity

3.       work on their ideas independently, without cumbersome restrictions or lengthy evaluative processes.

These creative environments tend to work with significant speed, and productivity is high because people love what they are doing. They work hard because they want to, and can think clearly more quickly because they are not feeling threatened by their colleagues or their leadership. Everyone is focused on the real external threats, not the unnecessary internal threats.

When time and trust are not present, people act out of fear, make reactive decisions, and self-protect instead of collaborate. Scared people might get up the motivation to work on a new idea, but the idea has been motivated externally by a threat-reward system. It’s an idea drenched in fear. Ultimately the organization loses.

In the fear-based organizations I encounter, I find creative people working at a fraction of their potential. Significant energy is spent developing political strategies to navigate the organization’s culture of intimidation, distrust, and infighting. These people work more and more in silos because it is safe, robbing themselves and their colleagues of the collective creativity, learning, knowledge and resources of the whole group. I come away thinking, “The brilliance of this team is being wasted.”

The dollar value of that lost intellectual power is staggering: all that time and energy misspent.

It isn’t only fear-based organizations that create underperformance. Underperformance is created simply be the absence of trust. High-trust teams tend to produce great quality work. But a climate of trust takes intentional effort to create. It does not happen by accident. Steps must be taken to actively build trust, collaboration and a strong sense of inter-dependence. When these steps are taken, people’s capacity to bring their best ideas forward and function at their full power and potential is released. Great things begin to happen in the presence of trust that were not possible in its absence.  

How do you build trust on teams?

It takes time and intentional effort. I’ll offer some further steps in my next blog posts, but here are a couple of things you can do today to begin to cultivate trust on your team:

1.       Begin with curiosity. When someone brings an idea, pause, reflect, then ask questions. Thank them for the idea. Wait a moment before you evaluate their idea. Your questions will give your team members time to think, question and learn for themselves, and your appreciation will ensure they keep thinking creatively.

2.       Give people permission to fail. Mistakes are proof that people are doing something: they are trying. When we experience errors as opportunities to learn, grow and change, people become more resilient, smarter about their choices and plans, and performance increases more quickly.

The most valuable asset you have is the imagination of your workforce. They won’t offer it to you unless they trust you, so be curious, ask questions, and give your people permission to try new things.

With these tools in your tool belt, you can begin building your very own Creativity INC.


Slam! The palm of a hand comes down hard on the table top. “Enough!” frustration erupts from one side of the conference room. The room falls silent, stunned.

In another room across town, the wave of a hand, dismisses a new idea and “moves us on.” In the mind of that direct report, whose thinking and insight were so casually dismissed, creativity shuts down. Embarrassment and frustration take root.  Around the table people take note: “It is risky to bring an idea to this table.”

Around the corner, a CEO paces the floor, and with wringing hands wonders how to bridge the growing revenue gap. What new idea or opportunity might infuse the organization with needed energy and capital? How will they face the mounting liabilities? These questions remain locked in a worried mind.

Meanwhile, back in the first conference room a chorus of whispers arise as the meeting concludes.

“Wow. What was that?”

“That is the last time I stick my neck out here.”

“Guess he finally got his, didn’t he?”

“About time.”

Inside the minds of each of these leaders, decisions are being made. Some stop contributing. Some spend their creativity elsewhere. Some will stir the pot of dissention and conflict. Some will check out and find another outlet for their passion, somewhere else to fulfill their purpose.

Have you ever witnessed one of these scenarios?

Each one describes a situation in which a different conversation could have taken place.

There are consequences for all our conversations. Each one we have, all day long.

As leaders, the consequences are significant.  How a leader steps into a conversation makes all the difference.

·       Will we open people up, or shut them down?

·       Will we build trust and resilience on our team, or will we be destructive with our words?

Learning to curate conversations well is a primary skill for successful leaders, which is why I spent the last year becoming certified as a Conversational Intelligence™ coach. Conversational Intelligence™ is a neuroscience based approach to leading and facilitating conversations which equips leaders with a base of scientifically grounded knowledge about conversations with a set of conversation practices that are designed to shift the neurochemistry of the participants from fear to trust, from corrosive conflict, to constructive candor.

It was a terrific and demanding experience. We studied the bio-chemistry and neuroscience of conversation, we curated conversations, and we were evaluated by our peers. All of us grew skills that will serve us and the leaders we coach for a lifetime, and I was reminded once again that it takes practice, patience, and persistence to have a meaningful conversation. These types of conversations are rewarding on many levels. In a business setting these rewards hit both our bottom line and drive our internal and external reputation as pace-setters.

Of the many tools and tactics we learned, there was a common practice at the root of every desired outcome, whether the situation was:

·       To mine a roomful of people for their best idea;

·       To create energy and enthusiasm on teams that have suffered a loss or setback; or

·        To rebuild trust after harsh words.

What was the common practice? The starting point?


Learning to foster Conversational Intelligence™ takes time and a commitment, and it all begins with listening. Quieting the mind and opening the ears. Listening is an art that takes practice. To listen we offer our silence and ask our minds to think not about our response, but to instead imagine the world through the eyes of the speaker.

·       What is happening for them?

·       How is this experience they now share shaping their beliefs?

·       How might past experiences have shaped the beliefs that are interpreting the experience being recounted?

Right or wrong in their ideas and interpretation, people need to be heard before they are willing to change their thinking. Listening is the gift that opens up conversations, and gives rise to understanding.

Listen and Then…

Follow your listening not with a statement, argument, or view, but rather with a curious question.

Judith E. Glaser, the creator of Conversational Intelligence likes to say it this way:

“Ask question for which you have no answer.”

Ask a purely generous question. By that I mean a question that is not trying to convince someone else of your worldview, but rather a question that guides you and the speaker to discover something together neither of you knew before. A purely generous question changes the emotional climate of a room.  

On the other side of that experience is greater trust, respect and, best of all, some common ground upon which both of you can stand.

I wish you well as you curate conversations in your life and work today.

Listen. Be curious. Ask questions. Savor the answers. If you succeed, the person will become curious about you too, and trust will begin emerge from out nowhere.


What type of peer are you?  How would your direct reports talk about you?  How about key customers?

I have recently been working with a team that is struggling with trust issues at the Executive Level.  This is a progressive company that has had tremendous success in the past and has cutting edge ideas that are reinventing the business they are in.  However, the Executives can barely stand to be in the same room.  Have you ever been in this type of situation?  I believe you probably have been at some point in your career.

I want you to think about a peer you really trust.  What is it about this person that allows you to open up and share your ideas, concerns and hopes?  We do an exercise at Voltage called Elements of Trust.  There are 6 characteristics of Trust and we ask people to rate the following elements from 1-6 (1 is high, 6 is low) reflecting how important each element is to each person.

6 characteristics of Trust

·       Time

·       Standards

·       Competence

·       Involvement

·       Sincerity

·       Reliability

Many times trust issues result because we value different things.  If you value competence highly and someone says they can do something but then does not perform the task appropriately, you are going to have a trust breakdown.  They may have been sincere, on time, and involved you and others but, if they miss the result, it will still be hard for you to trust this individual.

We took the previously mentioned Executive Team through this exercise.  Two had standards in their mind that had not been expressed.  Another two really cared about sincerity and thought competence could be grown over time.  However, another two thought you had to have proven competence or else they would not want to work with you on the project.  They realized that some of their challenges were because they valued different things and this understanding helped them in resolving their trust issues.  Try the Elements of Trust exercise at your organization and see what you discover. 


Trust has a bottom-line benefit because

1.      Trust turns groups into teams and

2.      Trust shortens the time it takes to get things done.

We are simply faster and more efficient when we trust people. (Stephen M.R. Covey makes a beautiful case for building trust in his book, The Speed of Trust:  the One Thing that Changes Everything.)

Let me describe two work environments.  You choose the one you would rather work in:

Workplace A

In this workplace, fear rules.  There is an absence of laughter, and stiffness in the way people move and speak.  Great care is taken before someone utters a word in a meeting.  You can almost see how tightly wound people are.  They are tethered to the demands and expectations of their job.  Duty and obligation define the day.

Workplace B

In this workplace, there is both swift movement and laughter.  People speak and move easily around one another.  Many ideas are put forward in meetings, and those ideas are challenged and refined by others present.  There is focus and engagement.  People are committed to a common cause, not in love with their own ideas.  A shared sense of purpose creates momentum in the organization.

The rest of this article will not help you if you would prefer Workplace A.

But if Workplace B appeals to you, here are 5 Tips to Cultivate Trust on Your Team.

1.      Ask questions for which you do not have an answer.

These kinds of questions show real curiosity and allow for creativity and collaboration.

2.      Share your desired outcome openly at the outset of the meeting or conversation.

This allows people to relax because they know what your expectations are from the beginning.

3.      Honestly share and discuss the threats and obstacles that are present.

Open discussion shrinks our fear, making the real challenges easier to overcome.

4.      Listen.  Actively.

Your act of listening calms everyone in the room, you included.  Listen to learn and understand.

5.      Celebrate success.

Notice and celebrate the successes on your team as shared successes of the team.  This simple pivot ties individual achievements to the entire group, and allows people to enjoy the successes of others more deeply.  It is easier to build team spirit when we share the wins!

When trust begins to emerge in a workplace, the pace of that workplace increases for one simple reason:  distrust takes time.  Do you want your people spending their time thinking of ways to protect themselves from colleagues and criticism or would you rather have your people spend that time and energy working on your business? Building trust has a bottom line:  trust increases the pace by decreasing the friction between people and teams.  The dividends of trust are both speed and creativity.  It pays to cultivate trust on your team.