Does Trust Matter for Leaders?

By Erin Wilson Burns | June 25, 2024

This article focuses on the importance of trust as one of the leadership competencies that differentiates executive leaders from leaders at other levels.

In recent articles, I have discussed the seven aspects of personality that differentiate executive leaders from leaders at other levels and shared insights on the first six: Objectivity in the Workplace, Having a Positive OutlookBeing EngagedBeing InnovativeTeam Building, and Being a Quick Learner. This article focuses on the final aspect, trust.  

Why does trust matter? 

Trust is a critical element in high performing organizations. Organizations bring disparate groups together to achieve something that cannot be achieved independently. Trust is the lubricant that allows disparate groups to work together toward a common goal. In the trenches, plateaus, or peaks of that effort, leaders must trust those directing their work, peers whose work intersects with their work, and direct reports. They must also, in turn, be trusted by these colleagues.  

With high trust, members are confident everyone is committed to achieving the group’s goals and will help one another to achieve those outcomes. Effective leaders are willing and able to perform confidently within organizational structures in large part because they trust the motives and objectives of both the organization and their own senior leaders. They inspire the same kind of trust in their direct reports. In other words, excellence within organizational structures depends on trusting hierarchical relationships. Trust of, comfort with, and the ability to operate constructively and positively within authority structures is a key leadership enabler.

Leaders who trust tend to be more confident, optimistic, and future-oriented than the average person, in general. This allows them to quickly find and establish trusting relationships that enable cooperative effort. Because they are less cynical about others’ motives and actions, trusting leaders assume others are trustworthy first. This outlook enables them to interact constructively within an authority structure.

What happens if a leader does not have or inspire trust? 

Without trust, leadership effectiveness is undermined. A lack of trust can stem from concerns a leader is advancing their own interests instead of the interests of the team or the organization. Sometimes, it can stem from a lack of confidence in the direction of the organization. At other times it comes from questions about the full commitment of others in  the organization to group outcomes and the effort required to achieve them.  In each case, the underlying issue is the inability to accept fully that others are behaving with full integrity and without hidden motives.  

While at times there is basis for a lack of trust, leaders differ in the length of time and degree to which they cling to this lack of trust and in their ability to “restart” with an individual or an organization.  

When a leader doesn’t trust more senior leaders in the organization, the group may not receive (or ignore) information that comes from other parts of the organization that informs their work. Sometimes these leaders end up “going rogue,” building team unity around goals that are not aligned with —or even contradict—the overall organization’s goals.  Lack of trust will also impact the leader’s ability and willingness to perform to the limit of their capability.  

Leaders who are less trusting can also directly, or more often in a passive-aggressive fashion, question the motives of others (above or below them) and make their teams less motivated to exert effort to achieve goals. This can impede the development of close interpersonal and/or mentoring relationships and limit their ability to build high performing teams. 

Can a leader be too trusting?

Leaders who are quick to trust tend to fit well into most organizations and have few problems building relationships and being comfortable with those above them in the organization. They tend to be self-confident, trustworthy, and often have a strongly positive outlook. All of these attributes facilitate good leadership.  

Too much trust, however, can also cause dangerous blind spots. Leaders who trust easily and completely (some would say blindly) are more likely to be manipulated by others, miss cues that individuals or information could or should not be trusted, and/or neglect nuances in office politics. Their naivete can endanger the status and effectiveness of the groups they lead and foster cynicism within their teams. On rare occasions, they can become pawns in other’s battles or unwitting accessories to illegal or unethical activities. 

Over-trusting leaders may lack the awareness that the world is not a perfect place, and that they need to differentiate the few people who are untrustworthy or manipulative from the many who are not.  

In sum, leaders who trust with wisdom create an environment that allows the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. They support, connect, and share, while steering clear of those who are untrustworthy or manipulative. Finally, they inspire trust and discretionary effort from their teams. 

I invite you to learn about the impactful ways RBL helps our clients foster and develop leadership that differentiation. Visit our website to learn more.

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 25 years of experience in leadership and strategic HR consulting.

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