The Relationship Between Trust and Leadership in the Workplace

Updated on May 7, 2020
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Lani is a seasoned financial analyst in both the public and private sector with over 15 years of business expertise.

Without trust, there is no leadership.
Without trust, there is no leadership.

What Is Trust?

What exactly is trust? The direct dictionary definition of trust is "a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something" (Merriam-Webster; trust). Trust is the name you give to any reliable behavior or outcome. Trust has both positive and negative actions, outcomes, consequences, and connotations.

Positive trust is easy to identify. For example, you can trust that your mom will take good care of your kids, that your best friend will be at your wedding, and that your local grocery store will be open till 11 p.m. You have built trust in these statements because the overwhelming majority of your past experiences has not given you reasons not to. You have never felt concerned after picking up your children from your mom’s house. You recognize your best friend has never let you down when it's important, and your grocery store has never failed to be open until 11 p.m.

Negative trust is often less recognizable. You trust your cousin will borrow your black t-shirt and never return it, that your son will forget to feed the dog, and that your boss will not consider your recommendations for changes in the office. All the examples you’ve read represent elements of trust, but what does this mean in the workplace?

Why Is Trust Important?

If you cannot trust your boss to respect you or trust your coworker to value your skills, then the workplace environment becomes tense and potentially hostile. When team members do not trust their supervisors or that coworkers will respect their contributions and take them seriously, creativity stagnates, and growth is suspended.

Trust is hugely emotional, as it requires one individual to expose vulnerabilities that can be exploited or cherished by another. Experiences provide us with insight into the results we should expect from any given situation. We hope that those we trust will cherish and protect our vulnerabilities. We expect those we do not trust to take advantage of our weaknesses and use them against us.

This image explores what a trusted leader needs.
This image explores what a trusted leader needs.

How to Build Trust

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Make this statement a motto to guide your thoughts, actions, and life at large. Make promises and keep them—no excuses! Do not avoid making promises; this does more damage to relationships than people realize.

Make and keep your commitments more often than not. Keep your promises simple. Ensure you promise something you can deliver and then deliver. Kept promises build reliability and hope, strengthen all relationships, and lead to trust.

Say no, when you mean no. It is better to say no—even if it is for shallow or selfish reasons—than it is to commit and disappoint. By saying “no” right away, you do not risk damaging whatever trust you have gained. Most likely, you will gain respect from the person you say no to for being truthful even if it hurts their feelings.

How to Repair Trust

Repairing damaged trust is a slow process that requires diligence, commitment, and patience. Being untrustworthy, unreliable, and noncommittal is a way of life—it is habitual. Being trustworthy, reliable, and committed is a way of life—it must become habitual.

What is most important is to stick to your changes and be predictable in your responses. Pick changes in areas in which you can maintain consistency. Punctuality and attendance are possibly the easiest ways to build trust. If you’ve been unreliable in punctuality and attendance previously, then commit to being present and on-time. It really is that simple. Cut out excuses and put in the work to be where you are expected to be and be there on time.

Be truthful with yourself so you can be truthful with others. When you do not intend to be on time or even show up, then don’t say you will. That’s it! If you know you are not going to do those things, do not lead people to believe you will. When you know you will not provide support to a peer, don’t say that you will. If you hate the idea of joining a coworker carpool, then don’t join the carpool!

It's important to learn how to deal with people you don't trust.
It's important to learn how to deal with people you don't trust.

How to Deal With Untrustworthy People

It would be nice to have every workplace be a utopia of trust and safety, but the truth is that is rarely the case. At some point in your career, you will have to deal with untrustworthy coworkers, team members, and bosses. So what can you do?

Keep a paper trail. Always be on alert for those situations that can be turned against you, act with integrity, and keep a legitimate paper trail to cover your steps. Maintain relevant emails and other types of written correspondence. Note important conversations and never be afraid to request information and commitments in writing from third parties. Remain ever-diligent so you can maintain a defensive wall of fact around your personal image and integrity.

Keep your guard up. Being instructed to “keep your guard up” may seem counterintuitive in a discussion surrounding trust. On the contrary, recognizing who to trust and who not to trust is a part of emotional intelligence and can be of aid in many workplace situations. Deeming a coworker (or supervisor) untrustworthy and subsequently keeping that person at a comfortable distance without causing social or political “drama” in the workplace will require unwavering emotional intelligence. This can be a very delicate tango at times, but it can be danced successfully with patience and dedication.

Keep your thoughts to yourself. Again, this sounds counterintuitive. I get it; bear with me. The rules have to change a bit when you are dealing with an untrustworthy coworker (or supervisor). It can be dangerous to your career and to your workplace social life if you reveal or share too much around someone who cannot be trusted. You risk losing credit for great ideas or you can find an aspect of your personal life is the new gossip topic in the break room, leading to an unnecessary impromptu “mentoring” from someone who probably should not be serving advice.

Empathize with distrusting people. Perhaps the most important way to deal with untrusting coworkers is to understand and relate to why they do not trust others. Four of the most common reasons people develop distrusting attitudes in the workplace are lack of confidence, lack of hope, a sense of injustice, and a desire for change. How does one combat these negatives? With positive communication, collaboration, transparency, and respect. Make everyone feel included and valued, and foster an environment of trust for everyone. Do not try to focus on a single distrusting individual. Instead, create a healthy and trusting environment for all. Encourage collaboration and engagement between leaders and followers and place heavy emphasis on transparency and engagement.

By keeping trust, transparency, and leadership by example on the forefront of your mind, you can cultivate a healthy work environment.
By keeping trust, transparency, and leadership by example on the forefront of your mind, you can cultivate a healthy work environment.

What Are the Benefits of Getting This Right?

Simply dedicating yourself, your team, or your organization to communication, collaboration, transparency, and respect will increase trust and help you realize the benefits of effective leadership. Members who are valued, consulted, and respected feel safe and are therefore more positive and more creative in their efforts.

Consider altering leadership structures to include and consider the values and needs of those who are led. Empower every employee, and you will empower the entire organization. Strict, authoritative organizational structures confine individuals emotionally and creatively. To be a great leader and to build a great organization requires collaboration, commitment, and contribution from every member.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Lani Morris


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    • JC Scull profile image

      JC Scull 

      11 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Very good!!! Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image


      11 months ago

      Very good guide to developing leadership skills for the beginners as well as a review for current leaders - a measuring device and aid to improvement.


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