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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

How Executive Leaders Build Trust

In the fast-paced digital workplace, building trust is increasingly challenging and vital for executive leadership teams. Trust takes place between two people and must be earned. The events of this past year have only made the challenge of building trust more critical and more challenging for executive leaders. The recent 2021 Edelman Barometer study involving 28 countries and over 33,000 respondents revealed that the global pandemic, economic crisis, and social justice concerns have sped up the decline in trust globally. defines trust as "the reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something."

Trust holds organizations together during change, making this decline particularly concerning. Furthermore, executive leaders have heightened expectations to lead on societal issues with the same energy, consideration, and passion as organizational results. As the world changes, people and organizations must change too. CEOs, CXOs, heads of business units, and top management team members are expected to be their organizations, visionary change agents. An important question to ask about executive leadership is if an executive leader can build trust during change and be considered trustworthy, given the decline in confidence?

Building Trust During Change

Numerous studies demonstrate that executive leadership is a critical determinant of successful organizations and organizational change. Change events, regardless of being departmental or company-wide, benefit 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 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 executives. Establishing trust during change requires executive leaders to focus intently on:

  • Building rapport.

  • Inviting and responding to emotional responses.

  • Explaining change clearly and concisely.

Growing expectations placed on CEOs and leading in an environment of low trust demands that executive leaders rely on proven guidance for communicating effectively. Executive communication that creates openness to change and builds trust includes:

  • 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.

  • Energy – Demonstrating personal excitement. An executive leaders' 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.

  • 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 Executive Leader

Successful businesses are built upon relationships, and trust is the currency of business relationships. In the book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama presented that business would not be productive without trust. The leading global coaching community for advancing professional and personal development is the International Coaching Federation (ICF). According to the International Coaching Federation, the following six behaviors are essential for building trust-based relationships:

  1. Shows genuine concern for the client's welfare and future.

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

  3. Establishes clear agreements and keeps promises.

  4. Demonstrates respect for the client's perceptions, learning style, and personal being.

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

  6. Asks permission to coach clients in sensitive, new areas.

Authors Maister, Green, and Galford, in their book The Trusted Advisor, present that trustworthiness is made up of these four essential attributes:

  1. Credibility is the most frequently achieved attribute of trustworthiness. It has rational and emotional aspects related to an individual's expertise and personal presence.

  2. Reliability is based on the frequency of interactions with someone and the consistency of expected behavior.

  3. Intimacy requires personal willingness to have a courageous conversation. This is one of the key differentiating attributes of trustworthiness.

  4. 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.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates

By assigning values to each of the trust-based relationship attributes and placing them into a trust equation allows for personal measurement of relationship trustworthiness (see Figure 1).

Executive leaders can benefit from taking stock of their relationships and reflecting on these essential attributes. Measuring trustworthiness provides helpful structured insights with the potential to improve trust-based relationships. Evidence suggests that improved organizational relationships lead to improved productivity and profitable results.

Two common themes in the research on building trust are transparency and relationships. The goal is to create safety by being open and candid to demonstrate caring and respect. This intimacy requires being personal and the willingness to have difficult conversations. Relationships require executive leaders to consider and discuss what works for others. The goal is to create a shared idea of success. A "your way or the highway" leadership style does not build trust in relationships. It is essential to understand both the context and perspectives of others and emphasize the other person. Lastly, do not judge too quickly. Learn to test assumptions and try to see the world as the other person does. The following acrostic, created by Glaser (2014), provides a helpful way to remember how to build and restore trust:

T – Transparency

R – Relationship

U – Understanding

S – Shared Success

T – Testing Assumptions

Executive Leadership Development

Leadership development is a proven strategy for business success in a rapidly changing world. Effective executive development programs have four components:

  1. Identify high potential leaders. High potential leaders have the most potential for future career advancement within the company. A tool being used by many top-performing companies to measure leadership is the value and promotability matrix or nine-box grid. Executive leaders are rated as low, medium, or high for performance, values, competence, and ability to promote.

  2. Invest in high-impact development. Executive leadership development must be engaging. Traditional classroom presentations are not effective. Tools such as executive coaching and assessments should be a part of any executive leadership development program. Research suggests that executives experience high satisfaction, lower stress, and less burnout due to leadership coaching. Also, most Fortune 500 companies use executive assessments such as a 360-degree leader assessment.

  3. Involve top leaders. The involvement of board members and top management in executive leadership development is essential. High-potential executive leaders need feedback and the challenge created by top leader involvement.

  4. Integrate training and business strategy. Incorporating strategic goals into the executive leadership development prevents participants from receiving generic off-the-shelf opportunities.

The personal and organizational benefits of investing in executive leadership development are many:​

Personal Benefits:

  • Establish and take action towards achieving both career and life goals

  • Become more confident

  • Gain more personal satisfaction

  • Contribute more effectively to the team and the organization

  • Take greater responsibility and accountability for actions and commitments

  • Work more efficiently and productively with others (leader, followers, peers, customers)

  • Communicate more effectively

  • Reduced stress

Organizational Benefits:

  • Empowers employees

  • Increases engagement

  • Improves performance

  • Improves employee retention

  • Supports identification and development of high potential employees

  • Supports identification of both organizational and individual strengths and development opportunities

  • Shows organizational commitment to employee development

Explore our leadership development and executive coaching solutions and find the right choice for you and your organization.


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.

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,