The Trust Factor: Cultivating an Approachable Leadership Team

Trust is a little word that carries with it a gigantic impact.  Whether I am speaking about a personal, intimate, or work relationship, Trust is the single most important component you can have (or too often don’t have).  Trust is hard to develop for lots of us, and most of us have been burned once or twice by trusting the wrong person.  And as the saying goes, once burned twice shy.  However, if you have your sights on leading, Trust is a non-negotiable component. So, what’s a person to do?  Let’s talk about how we build and cultivate trust in the workplace.   

Let’s start with the fundamental concept of trust: What does it mean to trust someone?  For this entry, I am talking mainly about the workplace, but the concepts are the same whether it’s a personal or a professional relationship.  Also, I am not a psychologist, so please read these from the perspective of someone who has watched, coached and led human teams for 20 years, not someone who wants a job as a college professor. 

I propose to you that the first level of trust is that someone isn’t going to cause you harm.  In the workplace, you need to know that someone isn’t going to “stab you in the back” or “throw you under the bus,” to use a couple of workplace sayings.  This might include the assumption that the other person is honest and isn’t lying to you.  Some psychologists speculate that we make this decision in as little as 10 seconds or almost instantly.

Amy Cuddy, a psychologist at the Harvard Business School, has been studying first impressions for more than a decade. She and her colleagues found that we make snap judgments about other people that answer two primary questions:

- Can I trust this person?

- Is this person competent?

(Published on the World Economic Forum)

The 2nd level of trust is that people will do what they say they will do.  This is important especially if there are multiple people working together on a project or another department.  I don’t want to commit my time and effort to a project just to have someone else drop the ball, and neither does anyone else.  Too often this happens, followed by a lack of accountability, which creates this sort of “who gives a shit culture” that holds way too many organizations back from real performance. 

The 3rd level of trust begins when you start learning what people believe and if their actions match their words.  If you tell me that you believe something to be true but then you demonstrate actions and behaviors that contradict that, then I can’t trust you.  This is a big problem, and one that often goes unrecognized (and is often not called out even when on full display).

 I once worked with an organization where the VP had to announce a layoff.  That’s a hard topic to begin with and one that is already emotionally charged.  However, this guy led off with, “All of you know people are the most valuable asset that we have… but unfortunately, we need to make some budgetary adjustments that will require a workforce reduction.”  There were words in between those statements but not one person heard them.  If your actions don’t match your words, your people can’t, don’t, and won’t trust you.

The  4th level is where the magic happens, in those few organizations that actually obtain it. This level is where not only do I know you won’t harm me and that you are going to do what you say you will do, this is the level where I allow myself to actually care about someone and I know that they care about me.  I recognize and believe that for the most part, people care about other humans, but this isn’t that generic “I care about people” thing, this is that honest and real thing that says “I genuinely care about my colleague and I am allowing myself to be open mentally and emotionally to him/her so that we both get something real and meaningful out of this work place.”  I truly want my colleague to be happy and successful. 

So, let’s talk about why this is so important. 

You are going to spend 40 – 60 hours/week working along side other humans.  I have looked and looked for a place where it is written that “work must suck.”  I haven’t found it yet, so I am going to say that it isn’t a law, it’s just bad advice. You have a lot of time and effort invested in work, so why not try to have fun?  Additionally, if you think you are going to motivate humans with money alone you need to read a lot more about the factors of human motivation.  So, let’s say for the sake of argument that people need a lot more than money from work and if they work in the right conditions, they could actually enjoy work.

People enjoy working in a healthy, thriving and engaged culture.  Without question, this is a truth.  That culture starts with Trust.  So, if you want to lead effectively, you must focus on building and enhancing that trust.

What are the types of people who struggle with genuine trust? I could write a book about this but since this is only a blog post, I want to focus on 3 types of leaders/executives that I see most frequently.  These are in no particular-order:

  1. The really-nice leader who is always polite but rarely effective.     

  2. The unapproachable leader who is too busy to be bothered with his/her team.

  3. The leader who thinks he/she needs to be involved in every single decision that needs to be made.

Nice but ineffective.  These are the people that are always polite, usually very polished and put together but not very effective at building a culture.  Why?  Because they are unwilling to get into the muck of emotions.  Relationships are messy things and you must be willing to get into it if you want to build trust and thus lead with your heart. These folks stay on the surface and smile a lot, but they usually don’t engage with destructive behaviors.  They often tolerate and overlook people who are “playing the system,” problems are avoided, and mediocrity abounds.  Being nice is important but being effective is more important. 

Unapproachable leader. I work with a lot of executives, and for whatever reason, a lot of them are aloof and/or unapproachable.  I don’t think that they intend to be this way, but the way they carry themselves is just sort of like, “I’m really busy, so if what you need isn’t really important, don’t bother me.”  If this is the base level demeanor, how could people around this person build trust?  You can’t.  If people work around this type of leader, they spend a lot of time wondering is now a good time to approach him about this?  Is she in a good mood?  Can I talk to her about this?  Then these folks often decide, “It’s not that big of deal.”  So instead of bringing up ideas, concerns or even opportunities, they simply forget about them.  In effect, the culture you get is one where all of the important stuff must come from the leader because he/she has set the tone that we don’t really have time to dig into problems together.  It creates a complacent and compliant workplace. 

Finally, we have the command and control leaders. These are the folks that feel like they, and they alone, can make the important decisions.  All decisions must funnel through them.  So, when people have an idea, it must be passed by the all-important, all-knowing leader.  This is simply stifling to the organization.  Imagine a team of 20 people and all of the decisions must pass through one person.  In manufacturing, we call that a bottleneck restraint.  The organization can only go as fast as that person can be pinned down and responds.  People who work in this environment often-times move to the “meh” category.  I will show up and get my check.  You don’t fire me, and I’ll do just enough to not get fired.  I won’t give you my ideas because I just don’t have the energy to mentally joust with you over every single agonizing discussion point. 

This list is certainly not all of the types, but these three will cover quite a few people.  So, what should you strive to do as a leader?  Well, there are countless books about this topic so I encourage you to keep reading and keep developing yourself.  Below are some of the items that I consider most important to building an environment of trust.

  1. First, I find it very important that leaders spend time articulating “What and Why.”  What are we trying to do, and why is it important?  You may need some help here because “increasing shareholder value that will increase the long-term value of the company” is about as exciting as watching paint dry.  People need to know and feel like what they do matters, so spend some time on this, especially the why.  Look for things that have meaning beyond the stock price or the President’s bonus. 

  2. Leaders need to try to be very genuine and very approachable.  This means that you carry yourself with humble confidence but that you don’t walk around scowling and filling up your calendar so that you struggle to even find time to pee.  Spend some time walking around and talking with your people.  Find out how they are doing, what they like about the job and what they might wish were different.  Show them that you are in it “with them” and not above them.

  3. One of the single most impactful things that I have seen is when Leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable. If you carry yourself and act like you are bullet proof, emotionless and the smartest person in the room, then your people are going to struggle to engage with you.  In fact, if you act like you are the smartest person in the room, your people probably think you’re an asshole, which isn’t really conducive to Leadership.  You shouldn’t have all the answers and if you are the leader, you should listen most and always speak last. 

  4. Finally, you must be willing to engage with your people in a way that transcends performance of doing the task. You must allow yourself to genuinely care about your people and ask them with honesty if they are ok.  Life is hard and people are doing the best they can.  If you don’t have the ability to empathize with your people, then you should probably go work by yourself somewhere. 

At one point in my career I was going through a personal situation that had me very distracted and disoriented at work.  My boss, a high level and demanding VP, showed up at my office one morning unexpectedly.  He had two coffees in his hand.  He stuck his head in my door and asked me if I had a few minutes. I said, “Of course, please come in.”  He came in and sat down and said, “Beau, I can tell something is bothering you and I’m worried about you.  I came to talk to you to make sure that you were ok, and to see if there was anything I can do to help.” 

I would have followed him to the end of the earth, and if he called me today needing help I’d be there as quick as I could.

Trust is crucial to having an effective work relationship.  If you want to lead people, you must find a way to earn their trust and give them your trust.  Please reflect on some of these topics and if any of them resonate with you, get to work on them.  If you are already in a trusting place with your team, bring in lunch one day and ask them how they feel about the workplace, the environment, you as a leader and if they feel like they trust you.  Who knows what kind of answer you will get, but asking the question will go a long, long way towards building trust. 


Beau Groover