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The Salt of Leadership: The Undeniable Importance of Trust

Scrabble tiles lying on a flat surface. They spell out "I TRUST YOU"
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The Unseen Force of Leadership: How Trust Impacts Every Interaction

Excellence in any field is rooted in foundational routines. So, is it surprising that outstanding leadership is no different? Leadership is not innate; it's cultivated through learning and practice.

What the best leaders do is make situations and people better. Leadership is the small things you do that make a difference, influence others, and improve life at work. The most impactful leadership behaviours are timeless.

The Essential Ingredient: Trust

According to Zenger Folkman, Trust is the cornerstone that enhances almost all other leadership behaviours.

"Trust changes the way people respond to a leader. It identifies and validates the leader's motivation. Trust assures others about whether the leader is acting out of self-interest or the interests of the organisation. It convinces colleagues that they are not being hoodwinked or taken advantage of."

Much like how salt enhances the flavours in food without adding its own, trust amplifies the effectiveness of other leadership behaviours.

The High Cost of Low Trust

In an organisational setting, almost all work is conducted through relationships - whether with team members, peers, or clients. A lack of trust can disrupt this delicate balance, making even the simplest communications fraught with suspicion. It can be like walking through a minefield. Even if the communication is clear and explicit, people will always look for hidden meanings and hidden personal agendas. A lack of trust is a sign of poor relationships and dysfunctional teams. In "The 8th Habit", Stephen Covey refers to low trust as "the great hidden tax," leading to delayed projects and inflated costs.

It's essentially playing life on hard mode - with no benefits.

The Ease of High Trust

Conversely, communication, where there is high trust, is effortless. Communication within a team with high trust can be intuitive and occurs with little effort compared to low trust settings. Conflict is either absent, reduced, or more easily resolved through respectful negotiation in a high-trust environment.

Over the longer term, a team of average members with high trust can even outperform a team of superstars with poor positioning because they lack trust.

Put your team in a strong position to succeed by building trust.

Building Trust: A Two-Step Process

Enduring trust cannot be faked, and a dramatic, one-time gesture or effort rarely produces it. To succeed, organisations need teams that work together, where individuals align their interests and put aside differences to focus collectively on what's best for the organisation.

1 - Clarify your expectations

An absence of trust often comes from a lack of mutual understanding required to drive productive communication, mainly about expectations about roles and goals. The underlying roots of communication breakdowns, toxic working relationships within teams, or even broken and sick cultures are often ambiguous or misunderstood expectations about roles (what people are accountable and responsible for) and goals (common priorities). How can there be a high degree of trust if we don't clarify our expectations and ensure all parties sing from the same hymn sheet? Three questions need to be answered:

  1. What are the rules of engagement for the team? How often you will meet, how meetings will be run, and the standards to which team members will hold each other accountable. Teams that take the time to consciously establish norms leverage a powerful tool for achieving team cohesiveness, trust and, therefore, performance.

  2. What is the current reality for the team? Is there a common view of the team's situation, such as stakeholders, competition, market and economic factors? Team formation and trust get off to a good start when members agree on the problems and opportunities they face.

  3. What are the collective results the team is focused on achieving? High-performing teams stay focused. They measure results against agreed goals, regularly track progress, and collectively learn from successes and mistakes.

2 - Seek to understand each other better.

At the heart of any healthy team lies the intensity of bonds between people and their collective goals, with trust as its foundation. Help team members get to know each other better and enhance trust using the personal histories exercise. It is a quick exercise where even established teams learn something new about the team members. Everyone in your team should answer five non-intrusive personal questions to do with their backgrounds:

  1. Where did you grow up?

  2. How many siblings?

  3. What was one of your interesting childhood hobbies?

  4. What was your biggest challenge growing up?

  5. What was your first job?

Want to go one step better?

Writing a user manual can expedite the trust-building process. The user manual intends for you, as the team leader, to provide a guide that clarifies your preferred interaction approaches and the best way to work with you. This way, people know what to do and what to expect without having to learn it the hard way. They get to immediately start as if they have known you for a month or two. Encourage each person in your team to write one. Things you should consider include the following:

  • What is my working style?

  • What are my values?

  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?

  • What do I want to be involved in?

  • What are my preferred communication modes?

  • When do I want to hear from you?

  • Some important do's and don'ts.

  • What do people commonly misunderstand about me?

  • What brings out the best in me?

  • What brings out the worst in me?

  • What are my blind spots?

  • Suppose tomorrow was your friend's first day working with me. What information about my personality would help them work with me more effectively?

Overall, trust is the linchpin of successful leadership. By understanding its importance and actively working to foster it, you set your team up for excellence.

🏋️ Challenge: Level up the Trust in your Team

This challenge is more extensive than usual. I want you to clarify expectations for your team and improve the quality of bonds between team members.

Clarify: work with your team to answer the following questions:

  • Rules of Engagement - how do we want to work together?

  • Current Reality - what are the most important challenges and opportunities we face?

  • Collective Results - design a team scorecard by asking, "What are the important goals we must achieve next year if we are to consider ourselves during that time?"

Understand: spend time to get to know your team:

  • Use the personal histories exercise.

  • Write your user manual and share it with your team.


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