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How Executive Leaders Build Trust

Building trust is increasingly challenging and vital for executive leadership teams. Distrust in society is breeding polarization. Evidence suggests less than a third of employees are willing to help, live near, or work alongside someone who disagrees with their point of view on things that matter. Trust is the currency of any business and is what holds a business together during change. CEOs and top management teams are expected to be visionary change catalysts in a fast-paced digital marketplace. However, privately many leaders question if it is possible to be considered trustworthy during change, given the decline in employee confidence. The good news is that you can rebuild trust after it is broken, but only if you manage what you say and do well. Here are proven strategies you can use to build high-quality trust-based relationships and a quiz to gauge your trustworthiness.

Why executive leadership trust matters

"The reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something."

Numerous studies demonstrate that leadership is a critical determinant of successful organizations and change. Regardless of whether a change is department-specific or company-wide, it benefits from executive engagement.

Executive leadership teams provide vision, establish strategy, prepare the corporate culture for change, and motivate employees to change. This is important because trust has been shown to mediate employee openness to change and, ultimately, the outcome of change.

When trust is present, organizations navigate and manage change with improved outcomes. Change events heighten emotional responses making communicating effectively challenging for the most skilled leaders.

How to build trust with your communication

A boss-subordinate relationship and transactional leadership style are not helpful when trying to build trust. The most effective leaders are transparent and vulnerable and demonstrate caring and respect for others.

There are two common themes that emerge from the research on building trust; transparency and relationships. To communicate effectively, leaders need to understand the context and perspectives of others and avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly.

In the book, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, Judith Glaser provides a helpful way to remember these attributes:

T – Transparency

R – Relationship

U – Understanding

S – Shared success

T – Testing assumptions

Establishing trust during change requires an intent focus on building rapport, inviting and responding to emotions, and explaining the change event clearly and concisely. Communications that create openness to change and build trust include:

Communication Trust Builder #1: Vision

The idealized goal for the organization to achieve in the future. Communication during change events should link to organizational values and provide enough detail so employees see the roadmap and benefits of the change. The goal is to create positive attitudes toward change and support for change.

Communication Trust Builder #2: Energy

Demonstrating personal excitement. An executive leader's positive emotions and mood are contagious. Research has demonstrated that leadership communication that enables followers to experience positive emotions results in enhanced happiness and well-being. In return, the enhanced positive emotions of followers increase employee motivation, cooperation, and support for change.

Communication Trust Builder #3: Support

Providing encouragement, reassurance, listening, and sharing feelings are ways executive leaders demonstrate support. Research has found that when individuals receive help, they are more receptive and show greater willingness to cooperate with change.

How to be a trustworthy leader

Trust takes place between two people and is earned. Successful businesses are built upon relationships. In his book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama presented that business would not be productive without trust.

The International Coaching Federation has identified six behaviors essential for building trust-based relationships:

  1. Show genuine concern for the other person's welfare and future.

  2. Continuously demonstrate personal integrity, honesty, and sincerity.

  3. Establish clear agreements and keep promises.

  4. Demonstrate respect for other's perceptions, learning styles, and personal being.

  5. Provide ongoing support for and champion new behaviors and actions, including those involving risk-taking and fear of failure.

  6. Ask permission to coach others in sensitive, new areas.

Leadership trustworthiness comes from four essential attributes of the leader:

Leadership Trustworthiness Attribute #1: Credibility

Credibility is the most frequently achieved attribute of trustworthiness. However, having the title of leader does not always equate to being perceived as credible. Credibility has rational and emotional aspects related to an individual's expertise and personal presence.

Leadership Trustworthiness Attribute #2: Reliability

Reliability is based on the frequency of interactions with someone and the consistency of expected behavior. Saying what you are doing, doing what you say, and saying what you did matter for building reliability.

Leadership Trustworthiness Attribute #3: Intimacy

Intimacy requires your willingness to be vulnerable and have a courageous conversation when needed. This is one of the key differentiating attributes of trustworthiness.

Leadership Trustworthiness Attribute #4: Self-Orientation

Self-orientation relates to the amount of focus placed on oneself versus the emphasis placed on the other person. A high degree of self-orientation creates significant distrust from others. Self-orientation is linked to the leader's conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience personality traits.

Assigning values to each of the trustworthiness attributes and placing them into a trust equation creates a way for you to measure your trustworthiness in each of your relationships (see Figure 1).

Are you a trustworthy leader?

High-quality relationships are high-trust relationships. Evidence suggests that improved workplace relationships increase individual and organizational productivity and profitability.

The Relationship Trust Checker is a free quiz you can use to gauge your level of trust in a relationship and identify opportunities to improve your trustworthiness.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates

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Bono, J., & Ilies, R. (2006). Charisma, positive emotions, and mood contagion. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(4), pp. 317-334.

Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. Free Press.

Glaser, J. (2016). Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Routledge.

Men, L. R., Yue, C. A., & Liu, Y. (2020). Vision, passion, and care: the impact of charismatic executive leadership communication on employee trust and support for organizational change. Public Relations Review, 46(3).

Kanfer, R., & Ackerman, P. (1989). Motivation and cognitive abilities: An integrative aptitude-treatment interaction approach to skill acquisition. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, pp. 657-690.

Maister, D. H., Green, C. H., & Galford, R. M. (2000). The trusted advisor. Free Press.

Shamir, B., House, R., Arthur, M. (1993). The motivational effects of charismatic leadership: A self-concept based theory. Organization Science, 4(4), pp. 577-594

Wanberg, C., & Banas, J. (2000). Predictors and outcomes of openness to changes in a reorganizing workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85 (1), pp. 132-142,


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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