Can we lead without trust?

Jan 31st, 2022

“Trust takes years to build
Seconds to break and
Forever to repair”

The issue of trust and the importance it plays in leadership has very much come to the fore over recent weeks – and its impact when that trust is perceived to have been broken.

Business leaders rely on trust in every aspect of their job – it is the ultimate currency in all relationships and we see an even greater expectation for the business world to lead in society, as trust in government continues to spiral.  The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that stakeholders hold businesses accountable and make decisions according to their values and beliefs with 58% buying or advocating a brand, 60% choosing the place they work and 64% investing based on their beliefs and values.

The report shows that over 60% of the population trust businesses as a general institution. This contrasts an IPPR think tank study in December 2021, which showed that trust in politicians in the UK is at its lowest point on record.  (A link to the full Edelman Trust Barometer report can be found at the end of this article).

Trust is a key aspect in business success. Leaders need to be trusted by their teams; employees need to feel trusted by their leaders; and service providers need to be trusted by their clients. Trust breeds loyalty, but it can take time to establish genuine trust – and it can be lost in a moment. To know how to develop and maintain trust, we first need to understand a bit more about what trust really is.


Three pillars of trust

Depending on whose book you are reading or what Ted talk you are watching, you will hear about 3, 4, 5 or 8 pillars of trust. From a leadership perspective, I prefer to focus on three, as the ones I believe underpin all other elements; namely competence, reliability and sincerity.

Competence – can a business, or individuals within a business, be trusted to do what is expected of them to a high standard.

Reliability – can a person or team be relied upon to deliver what they say or when they say.

Sincerity – does the person we wish to trust act with integrity in what they do and are they sincere and genuine in the way they behave and in what they say

As people looking to put our trust in someone, there are times we may make individual judgements over which elements we are willing to compromise on. For example, we may choose to continue working with someone who we realise isn’t entirely reliable in the timing of their delivery, but with whom we feel connected to through their sincerity and whose work is of a high standard when it is delivered. We set our own priorities and decide for ourselves what is important to us from that specific relationship.

Ask yourself how you could be judged against each of these pillars and think about what you could do to improve on areas where you may not be strongest.


Building trust as an action

Theodore Roosevelt said “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

The process of building trust is an action and it must be actively worked on from the outset if you are to gain the respect and trust wanted from those around you.

To give you an example, a senior executive I work with has always been successful in everything he did. He was a strategist and had climbed his career ladder with ease, however, he was thrown off balance after starting a new job on discovering that his new team didn’t appear to support the vision and strategy that he was presenting to them. As we analysed his situation together, it became clear to him that he hadn’t put the work in upfront to engage his new team in a meaningful way. He had come in with high-level strategic plans and ideas, but they weren’t being bought into because he hadn’t yet earned his team’s trust. He went away from our session with a plan to spend time really getting to know his team and seeking their input. Once he had done this he found he was able to change this detached response to a commitment that was emotionally driven with genuine care towards the outcome and the end goal. His team had learned to trust him.

Think about what actions you take to build trust from the start of new business relationships; are you doing enough to create personal ties upon which trust can be built?


Uncomfortable honesty

Honesty in leadership and business is a complicated concept, because all too often the focus of leaders is in avoiding conflict, either within their team or with clients. Leaders who aren’t willing to say the uncomfortable things though are the ones most at risk from losing the respect and trust of those they are dealing with.

A new Finance Director joined the board of a property company and commented on the lack of challenge that existed within the Executive Team.  He put in place a framework where all decisions had a series of questions that allowed the Board to review them from a number of perspectives which encouraged debate so there was more rigour in decision making. This in turn had an impact on the culture within the team which trickled down to the team meetings within the business generally.

What level of honesty exists within your culture?  What is your process for decision making to ensure that people have the opportunity to challenge?


Seven tips for improving trust

The most powerful leadership tool you have is leading by your own example.  Here are seven tips on how you can improve your own trust levels, as well as those of your team and peers.


  1. Build trust before you start working with an individual or team.

Spend time getting to know them, find out what their values are, what their interests are, what they most enjoy about their work and their aspirations.  And share yours too so they get to see the person behind the role. I recall when working in Asia, a client who had just joined as MD asked every member of his team in their first meeting to bring a photo noting their most important values which he placed on his office wall.


  1. Be clear about your expectations and boundaries.

With the increase in remote working, it is important to demonstrate trust and clarify clear outcomes so that everyone understands what is expected of them.  I hear leaders who express distrust of how hard some team members work when they are working from home. If deliverable outcomes are clear, then micro-management can be avoided.


  1. Value peoples time

Build in time in your diary for the development of your team, and avoid rescheduling one-to-ones, it sends a message that they are not important.


  1. Share your knowledge.

Trust often comes from the respect your team has for your competence and knowledge, and when they understand why you got to where you are this will help them trust that you are someone worth giving their best for and make them want to learn from you.


  1. Walk the talk.

Leaders create cultures.  If you are building your business on certain key values be clear about the behaviours that underpin those values, and make sure you can be seen embodying them yourself. Put yourself forward as the role model for your team and your customers.


  1. Be consistent

Unpredictability and uncertainty breeds mistrust and consistency breeds loyalty.  At times of change be transparent and explain why your direction or decision has changed. This way people learn that they can rely on you.


  1. Show people what you value and respect about them

Let them understand how their strengths add value to you, the team and the business. Support their goals and have their back at times of crises.


In leadership character is more important than strategy, and as a leader every action has a consequence – make sure it is one you intend.

If you feel your team could benefit from building trust with each other or with clients, please get in touch on  If you would like to know more about what our clients have gained from our coaching we have lots of testimonials that you might find interesting. .


Relevant links and recent articles:

How to thrive professionally and personally in 2022