How leaders build trust

Throughout my career, I have worked with many organizations that experienced leadership transitions. From our discussions with boards and executive team members, the most important measure of success for new leaders is building trust and credibility with internal and external key stakeholders. While its importance across companies and industries of all types is undisputed, building trust is seemingly easy for some leaders, but proves difficult for others. Why is that? Why do some succeed in this most crucial area, while others fall short?

Here are 7 proven ways for leaders to build trust:

  1. Get to know the organization and its people before making changes – Whenever a new leader arrives, there is a sense of anxiety and uncertainty throughout the organization. Will he replace the executive team and bring in his own people? How will his style affect the existing culture? The first few acts of a new leader will set the tone for his tenure, so the importance of building trust right away cannot be overstated. Don’t make any big changes in people or processes in the first 90 days. Instead, spend that time meeting with people, asking questions, and listening. By displaying a real interest in learning about the company and its culture, the new leader will build a foundation of trust among the workforce.
  2. Transparent communication – Nothing destroys trust like a lack of communication. When people don’t know what’s going on, their minds run rampant and they make assumptions. Without clear and proactive communication from their leader, those assumptions grow into uncertainty and doubt, which turn into fear – and fear destroys trust. What can a leader do to prevent this from happening? Communicate early and often. A leader should be vocal about all topics of importance, from big-picture subjects (company vision, strategy, competitive landscape, culture) to issues that impact people on an individual basis (personal goals, expectations, feedback, encouragement). Keeping people informed boosts confidence and trust in leadership and provides a sense of calm and unity throughout the organization.
  3. Treat people right – Everyone likes to be treated with dignity and respect. Employees want to feel important and that their contributions to the organization are appreciated. Customers want to feel valued for their patronage. Leaders can do some very basic things every day to elevate employees’ and customers’ experiences. Saying hello to people in the hallway with a genuine smile is a small act of kindness that will stay with them all day. Take a real interest in people’s lives by asking about their families, their hobbies, and their motivations. Get to know people on a deeper level and find ways to be supportive, both inside and outside of work. Have their backs in challenging situations. A leader who goes to bat for people is rewarded with fierce loyalty and dedication. If you treat people with authentic humanity, then it will be returned exponentially. But don’t do these things because of what you may get in return. Do them because they are the right things to do.
  4. Provide development opportunities – As leaders build stronger relationships with their employees, they should identify opportunities that will help people grow, both personally and professionally. In the workplace, ensure that people are being challenged on a regular basis. Get them involved in projects that will enhance existing skills, develop new ones, and increase their opportunities for promotion. Also, find ways to encourage people’s desire to grow personally, such as supporting education, charitable activities, or community investment.
  5. Be visible and approachable – A surefire way to build trust as a leader is to be visible and approachable. The amount of visibility and approachability leaders have is directly related to the amount of trust they earn from their staff. Conversely, leaders who command from an ivory tower and are rarely seen do not command high levels of trust. Leaders should develop a ritual of getting out of their offices and engaging in discussions with their workforce on a regular and recurring basis. They should strive to visit all of the organization’s locations, meet people at all levels, and solicit feedback from everyone. Hold “brown bag lunches” with small groups of employees or host town hall meetings with larger groups. Whatever the event, the goal is the same: to create and maintain a two-way dialogue with people throughout the organization. When leaders prioritize visibility, engage in conversations, and encourage feedback, they build trust and esprit de corps that strengthen their organizations.
  6. Foster an inclusive culture – A basic desire of practically every person in this world is to feel important. In the workplace, employees want to do meaningful work that contributes to the greater good of the company. Therefore, creating and maintaining a culture where the sharing of ideas is not just accepted, but encouraged, should be a top priority for any leader. Gone are the days of the omniscient, omnipotent CEO who makes all significant decisions independently. Rather, contemporary organizations that foster a supportive, collaborative culture and value the ideas that a diverse workforce can offer achieve greater levels of success and sustainability than their rivals.
  7. Walk the talk – At the end of the day, no leader will gain the trust of his people if he doesn’t set a proper example. Leaders need to understand that all eyes are on them, all the time. The moment that they are caught doing something in contrast to what they preach, then all trust and credibility is lost. Therefore, leaders need to walk the talk, every minute of every day. That means greeting people with a smile, picking up trash in the hallway, personally escorting a customer to the desired department, soliciting feedback and ideas before making a decision, or whatever else makes up the foundation of your company’s culture.

Building trust is paramount to achieving success as a leader. In fact, it is arguably the most important aspect of leadership. Even a leader who makes all the right strategic decisions will be unsuccessful in the long run if he fails to build trust and gain buy-in from his team. By developing trust, a leader (and thus, an organization) can accomplish great things.

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