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Leadership Trust Killers: 4 Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

I inherently trust most people. I also can quickly distrust people. Why? For the same reasons as everyone else, to avoid something bad. Deciding whether to trust or not is always important. Putting faith in the wrong someone or something can lead to big life and career mistakes. Increasingly leaders face overcoming inherent distrust and a rise in workforce polarization. A recent large-scale global trust study found that less than one in three people would help those with whom they disagree. And only 20% are willing to have someone they disagree with as a co-worker. Being trustworthy is a life-changing leadership habit. Research into relationship trust has revealed that when distrust occurs, it tends to be for the same reasons. That is actually good news for leaders because it means it's relatively simple to diagnose and fix many of the challenges to building trust with employees. Here are the four common mistakes that can be leadership trust killers, plus fixes to build trust.

Why trust matters

Trust is the currency of business relationships, and an absence of trust can bankrupt the organization and its employees. At an individual level, a lack of trust contributes to feelings of:

  • Frustration

  • Rejection

  • Stress

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

When we experience feelings of distrust, our body responds immediately at a bio-chemical level within less than a second. Cortisol, catecholamine, testosterone, and norepinephrine levels in our blood increase rapidly. This chemical cocktail triggers a wave of emotions, producing feelings of stress, aggression, and a need for fight or flight.

In conversations, when experiencing a sense of trust, our body produces a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the "love hormone." It is oxytocin that increases feelings of well-being.

Feelings of trust and distrust influence thoughts and feelings at a chemical level, which shape our beliefs and ultimately drive behaviors and actions in conversations (see Figure 1).

An absence of trust or the presence of distrust at the organizational level undermines the goals and interests of the business and the engagement and organizational commitment of employees. When leaders in an organization are unable to trust, the organization is less likely to innovate and take risks, holding back the performance and productivity of the organization.

Trust Killer #1: Lack of Credibility

Credibility is the most frequently achieved attribute of trustworthiness. It has rational and emotional aspects of an individual's expertise and presence. Daily actions and routines can either create or destroy credibility. The distance from the frontline increases as a leader ascends within an organization threatening the leader's credibility about the work. A common threat for leaders, especially those in executive positions, is a desire to move too quickly.

When leaders make decisions without listening or think a paycheck is enough of a thank you, it diminishes leadership credibility. Admitting what you don't know, being curious about the business, saying thank you, and being empathetic and cooperative are ways to build credibility.

Trust Killer #2: Lack of Reliability

Reliability is an unwritten expectation of leaders. Reliability is based on the frequency of interactions with someone and the consistency of expected behavior.

Leaders who say they will do something and fail to follow through or do something different are perceived as unreliable. For example, leaders that discuss the importance of following procedures in one meeting and then in the following meeting critique followers for not taking innovative approaches to solving problems are unreliable.

Poor communication, a lack of follow-through, chasing every shiny object, inability to say no, or being unpredictable diminish leadership reliability. Likewise, when what is said is done, clear priorities are established, and leaders show up authentically, creating reliability.

Trust Killer #3: Lack of Transparency

Transparency requires a personal willingness to have difficult conversations. This is one of the key differentiating attributes of trustworthiness. When leaders lack transparency, it fuels suspicion and rumors in the workplace. A lack of transparency increases misinterpretations, causing misunderstanding, distrust, follower uncertainty, and anxiety.

Being guarded, telling a 'white lie,' sharing too much, and being manipulative create a lack of transparency. A lack of transparency can come from a leader's failure to act or, worse, their intentional actions. When leaders purposefully withhold information to manipulate a situation, it creates a toxic culture and is a sign of a dark personality type called Machiavellianism. Being open, honest with the good and the bad, sharing timeline-relevant information, and serving followers are practical ways for leaders to be transparent.

Trust Killer #4: Lack of Humility

Humility 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. An absence of humility is often considered narcissism, characterized by a highly self-involved personality and a fragile ego susceptible to the faintest criticism.

When leaders have an inflated self-view, believe they are superior, prefer personal recognition, or reject negative feedback, they diminish trust. Likewise, when leaders have an honest self-view, believe in the team's greater good, prefer shared recognition, and view critical feedback as a path to a better future, they are perceived as humble and enhancing trust.

How to measure your relationship trust

Everyone can benefit from reflecting on the essential attributes of trust. Measuring your trustworthiness provides helpful structured insights with the potential to improve your personal and professional success and significance.

Assigning values to each of the four attributes of trust and placing them into the following trust equation allows for a personal measurement of your relationship's trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Transparency) / Humility

Here is a short quiz you can use to assess the trust level of any of your relationships.

As you take the quiz, your relationship trust index is calculated. You can use this score to gauge your level of trust in your relationship.

What's the real leadership trust challenge for you?


Brender-Ilan, Y., & Sheaffer, Z. (2019). How do self-efficacy, narcissism, and autonomy mediate the link between destructive leadership and counterproductive work behavior. Asia Pacific Management Review, 24(3), 212-222.

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

Edelman. (2023). Edelman trust barometer: Navigating a polarized world.

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

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

Men, R. & Bowen, S. (2016). Excellence in internal communication management. Business Expert Press.

Nevicka, B., Ten Velden, F., De Hoogh, A., & Van Vianen, A. (2011). Reality at odds with perceptions: Narcissistic leaders and group performance. Psychological Science. 22(10):1259-1264.

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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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