Trust in leadership: Why it’s important and how to repair broken trust

Trust in leadership

Trust in leadership takes months to develop but can become unravelled in an instant. In this article, we discuss the nature of trust in organisations, why it’s important, some ways to build trust, how it can be damaged, and tips for rebuilding broken trust with your team.

What is trust and why is it important?

Trust, in an organisational context, means employees believe that their leadership team is dependable, demonstrates the right behaviours, keeps their promises, and has their best interests at heart. Trust can be broadly categorised in two ways:

  • Trust in capability: The confidence that a colleague or manager has the competence required to get the job done.
  • Trust in character: The way someone consistently demonstrates values such as honesty, integrity, fairness and respect.

A seminal study titled The Neuroscience of Trust  (2017) found that, compared with people working in low-trust companies, employees in high-trust companies reported:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and
  • 40% less burnout.

Lower stress, better engagement, higher satisfaction and decreased burnout add up to one thing: reduced turnover, which is a critical challenge for organisations in the current tight talent market.

Trust is also an essential ingredient for developing psychological safety, an environment that is achieved when team members feel confident to take risks, voice opinions and challenge ideas in the knowledge that it won’t impact their careers.

Without trust, people will not take risks. And without risk-taking, there can be no innovation.

It’s important to note that there’s a darker side to trust. Unscrupulous colleagues and managers may take advantage of other people’s willingness to trust, with many of the corporate world’s most famous scandals being based on confidence schemes. Trust in others has also been linked to unconscious bias, with one study revealing that we are more likely to trust someone who looks like us.

The fact that trust can be abused makes genuine trust – built slowly and carefully over time – even more valuable for leaders and their teams.

How to build trust

Building trust takes time, care and patience. Here are seven ways to begin developing trust as a leader.

1. Walk the talk

A good leader is a role model and sets an example to others in terms of demonstrating company values and character traits such as trustworthiness and fairness.

2. Keep your promises

One of the most basic elements of trust is being consistent in terms of following through on the promises you make. If this proves difficult, consider being more careful in terms of making promises and commitments you may not be able to keep.

3. Be honest and share information

Team members will find it difficult to trust you if they feel you have a tendency to stretch the truth or withhold information. Sometimes telling the truth can be uncomfortable (particularly when the business is going through a rough patch), but your team will reward you for doing so in terms of trust. Help the team understand the context around why decisions are made.

4. Be loyal to your team

Loyal leaders defend their team and do not pass blame down the chain when things go wrong. Importantly, they recognise excellence and praise their team to upper management.

5. Provide autonomy

Nothing erodes trust so much as micromanaging. Looking over your team members’ shoulders and checking everything they do will make them feel you do not trust them. Empower your team to make their own decisions, then step back and watch them take ownership of their work.

6. Show vulnerability

It can be difficult to trust someone if they never reveal their authentic self in the workplace and never develop genuine connections. Showing vulnerability takes courage but builds trust and social capital among the team.

7. Demonstrate small acts of trust

Rather than attempting to build trust fast with a grand gesture, build trust incrementally with lots of small acts. Examples might include trusting someone to take home office equipment without going through a lot of red tape, trusting the team to take risks, or trusting someone to work from home on certain days of the week.

How to hire for trust

How can hiring organisations spot trustworthy leaders in the recruitment process? Use behavioural-based interviewing to unearth the following traits:

  • A belief in the importance of team-building
  • An ability to handle criticism
  • Low levels of narcissism
  • High levels of empathy
  • Strong communication.

How trust can be fractured (and repaired)

According to SHRM, trust between teams and leadership can be broken abruptly through a single “triggering event” such as a major restructure, or may be eroded over time through small, subtle patterns of behaviour such as a manager regularly taking credit for other people’s work.

Fractured trust can lead to a toxic workplace culture, lower engagement and productivity, reduced innovation (due to people feeling unwilling to take risks), and higher turnover.

Repairing broken trust is critical for rebuilding a high-performing team, but it isn’t easy. Here are some ways to get started.

  1. Start by acknowledging the issue that caused trust to be fractured.

  2. Own up to your mistakes. Perhaps the issue was out of your control (such as a restructure), but be sure to take responsibility if the fault was yours.

  3. If the issue still exists or is continuing to impact the team, have a transparent conversation about how to address the problem. Invite the team to contribute their ideas to ensure they feel involved in solving the problem.

  4. Examine your own behaviours. Did you let the team down by failing to walk the talk, by withholding information, or by breaking a promise? Demonstrating trustworthy behaviours will set an example for the rest of the team and help repair a broken, mistrustful culture.

In conclusion, don’t make the mistake of underestimating the importance of trust-building in the workplace. Trust provides an essential foundation to help teams navigate through an environment of constant change and uncertainty.

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