Almost everyone agrees that trust is important in leadership. So why is it that “lack of trust” is a common critique of leadership and frequently scores low on employee engagement surveys?
What is trust?
Trust is not – but is too often used as – accounting. A leader who walks around with an imaginary list and records incidents that increase or decrease their trust is using trust as accounting. “Bob didn’t get that done on time, I don’t trust him as much. Sally really came through on that project, I trust her more now.” If your trust goes up or down, that’s a sign that you’re not trusting, you’re keeping score.
Trust is also not an outcome. It comes first, not as a result. When you say “if you behave this way, then I trust you”, trust loses all its power and simply becomes a convenient label or way to categorise people – “these are the people I trust.”
Trust is not a judgment. If you evaluate people based on their behaviours or character traits and have levels or degrees of trust – “I trust Sarah a lot, but Jen not as much” – that isn’t trust, it’s simply a judgment.
If you say “Trust, but verify,” then it’s not trust, it’s just a head start.
If you say “I trust you to…” then it’s not trust. At worst it’s a command and at best it’s an expectation with conditions. If what you mean by trust is, “if you do what I expect then I trust you, and if you don’t do what I expect then I don’t trust you,” that’s not trust, that’s expectation.
So what is trust?
Trust is a context that great leaders create for their teams. When trust is a context in which people and behaviours show up, it becomes very powerful. In a context of trust, when someone does something you don’t like or makes a mistake, it’s considered a development opportunity not a violation of trust. Your response is to provide feedback and support development (ie be a leader).
Great leaders create a powerful context of trust that raises the performance of everyone. Mediocre leaders use trust as a judgment and play favourites, giving opportunities and development to people they trust, and ignoring or avoiding the people they don’t trust. Bad leaders believe people shouldn’t be trusted, or everyone has to earn their trust, so they sit around complaining about untrustworthy people and how hard it is to find good people.
If you are a leader and you have people on your team that you don’t trust, that’s your responsibility and opportunity. You either have trust confused with accounting or you have the wrong people on your team. But either way the solution lies with you, not the person you don’t trust. Trust as accounting is disempowering. It disempowers your people but it also disempowers you. When you don’t trust someone, or “lose trust in them”, you become a victim of the people you don’t trust. The performance and workability of the whole team goes down because you think you have people you can’t trust, so you stop developing them.
Don’t confuse a context of trust with being gullible, ignoring problems, or abdicating responsibility. Creating a context of trust doesn’t mean you don’t have process, systems or checks and balances. And if creating a context of trust sounds too idealistic or Pollyanna, perhaps you might want to begin with trusting trust.
Trust is as simple as “I trust you”. Simple, but not necessarily easy. When you create a context of trust, you create the opening for performance and development to show up. And you create an opening for you to show up as a leader.