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The Surprising Role of Goodwill in Building Trust

When was the last time you heard thank you or sent a handwritten note? You might feel such moments are rare or nonexistent in the workplace. Most leaders feel trapped in the relentless pursuit of results, achieving the next goal. And a transactional leader considers a paycheck the best form of motivation. But what if I told you that acts of goodwill, often taken for granted, are not optional but essential to establishing your leadership credibility? Trust is not something to ignore. It has been shown to affect employee openness to change and, ultimately, moderate the outcome of change. Some of the most successful leaders and companies attribute their success to high-quality, trust-based relationships. Microsoft, for example, promotes that business value is achieved through trust, love, and loyalty. Being trustworthy takes credibility, which is not inherent to being a leader. You're not alone if you are concerned about not having enough time for goodwill. A key is to not see goodwill as optional but as necessary. To help you start, here is what you need to know about trust and goodwill.

The leadership trust and credibility connection

Trust-based leader-follower relationships are based on credibility, reliability, transparency (vulnerability), and humility (self-orientation).

  1. Credibility has rational and emotional aspects related to an individual's content expertise and personal presence.

  2. Reliability is based on the frequency of interactions with someone and the consistency for them to behave as expected.

  3. Transparency (vulnerability) requires being personal and the willingness to have a courageous conversation.

  4. Humility (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 with others.

When you are an executive leader or own your own business, it is inevitable that at some point, you will experience a situation where you have responsibility for leading but don't have a deep understanding or technical expertise for the specific work. While these situations negatively impact your credibility, it doesn't necessarily mean you are not perceived as trustworthy.

Evidence suggests that power and influence increase with a leader's perceived ability to possess and display knowledge and skill. A leader's ability to influence is directly affected by follower perceptions. The more credibility a leader has, the greater their influence and ability to lead.

Research into credibility reveals that the leader's knowledge, competence, and goodwill are the primary drivers of followers' perceptions.

A critical blind spot for many executives is the importance of their knowledge and technical competence in the areas they lead. Although leaders are not expected to be all-knowing and possess the competence to perform the tasks of every job in a company, a leader can enhance the perceptions of others through training, education, and experience.

What is trustworthiness?

Being considered a trustworthy leader is something that is earned. Without trust-based relationships, leaders and businesses can't succeed. Being trustworthy brings out the best in others and the workplace.

Trust is a reliance on character, capability, or truth. Trustworthy synonyms include reliable, dependable, honest, and ethical.

In the following video, Simon Sinek breaks down the impact of trust and being trustworthy as a leader.

Do you have high-quality, trust-based relationships?

Leaders who want to improve the quality of their relationships can measure their trustworthiness using the following free Relationship Trust Checker.

Scores of 10-30 indicate a high degree of relationship trust, 5-10 indicate a moderate degree of relationship trust, and scores of 1-5 show a low degree of relationship trust.

What is Leadership Goodwill?

Evidence suggests leadership goodwill may be the most crucial element of credibility, especially among leader-follower relationships with frequent interactions.

Most simply stated, goodwill is being authentically friendly and having their employees' best interests at heart.

There are a couple of important nuances to clarify with the concept of being nice. First, building mutual goodwill is not trying to be popular but authentically caring for followers and the organization. Second, being friendly means being willing to have a difficult conversation and exit a colleague from a job where they are underperforming.

"Your smile is a messenger of your goodwill." ~ Dale Carnegie

Leaders display and create goodwill by being:

  • friendly

  • helpful

  • cooperative

  • and taking an interest in followers' well-being

A leader can build their goodwill capacity by developing their emotional intelligence, helping followers, and spending time establishing high-quality relationships.

Leader characteristics that support goodwill

Several research studies demonstrate the benefits of a leader's inner game. A leader's behaviors or outer game are the actions a leader should take in a given situation. However, a leader's inner game characteristics influence whether a leader will take action.

A leader's empathy, compassion, and selfless love are the inner game characteristics supportive of goodwill.

  1. Empathy is the ability to be aware of, feel, and take on the emotions of what another person is experiencing.

  2. Compassion is an empathic understanding with a desire to help another person.

  3. Selfless Love - to desire and put into action the will for the good of another ahead of your interest.

6 ways leaders can show goodwill

Leaders can enhance goodwill with simple actions without having to expend much energy, such as:

  1. Saying thank you

  2. Sending a digital or handwritten thank-you note

  3. Asking questions to get to know your followers

  4. Using a reinforcement survey to learn what they find rewarding. A reinforcement survey is a series of questions to learn about activities and situations a follower finds reinforcing, such as hobbies and how employees spend their free time.

  5. Recognizing special dates such as birthdays and work anniversaries

  6. Scheduling one-to-one meetings and treating them to a drink of their choice

Key Summary Points

  • Being trustworthy takes credibility, which is not intrinsic to being a leader. Being credible is something that followers rationally and emotionally perceive.

  • Trust-based leader-follower relationships are based on credibility, reliability, transparency, and humility.

  • Research into credibility reveals that the leader's knowledge, competence, and goodwill are the primary drivers of followers' perceptions.

  • Leadership goodwill may be the most crucial element of credibility, especially among leader-follower relationships with frequent interactions.

  • Leaders display and create goodwill by being friendly, helpful, cooperative, and taking an interest in followers' well-being.

  • Leaders can enhance goodwill with simple actions without having to expend much energy.


Cameron, K. (2012). Positive leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. Berrett

Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L., & Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and persuasion: Psychological studies of opinion change. Yale University Press.Koehler Publishers, Incorporated.

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

Yukl, G. (2010. Leadership in organizations. (8th ed.) Pearson.


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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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