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Trust - The Most Vital Component in Leadership

"Trust is the emotional glue that binds followers and leaders together."

- Warren Bennis and Bert Nanus

"If you don't believe in the messenger, you won't believe the message."

- James Kouzes and Barry Posner

I see it all the time - leaders who blame followers for breakdowns in the organization. I often hear complaints like these:

- "If those people would just do what I tell them."

- "You just can't find good workers today."

- "Why won't these people get onboard with what needs to be done?"

- "Why do they complain all the time?"

Each of these leadership laments focuses on what's wrong with the follower. Each concern excludes leadership responsibility as a source of or contributor to the breakdown.

I see employees who won't do what needs to be done, or, at best, perform at a bare minimum level. I see team members who drag their feet on new procedures or work practices. I see workers who do just enough to get by.

I see these behaviors and I ask myself - what's the problem?

When I get the opportunity to discuss the issue, I usually hear at least some component of violated trust. I hear people say that they want to perform at a higher level, but they don't trust that they will be recognized or rewarded. I hear people concerned that they'll be penalized if they speak the truth and identify the real problems in the organization. I hear people who have been beaten-up by current or previous leadership. All signs of violated trust.

Creating an environment of trust is a tricky issue. People carry past hurts with them. Some people expect more from their leaders than they are willing to give themselves. Leaders do things that unintentionally confuse or scare people. Some people just don't want to trust organizational leaders. But, regardless of the past or current situation, the responsibility to build trust lies first, and foremost, with the leader. It's not always fair, and it's not always easy. But it is always the leader's responsibility.

Trust is the foundation for every successful leader's accomplishments. When people don't trust the leader, they won't follow very far.

How do you, the leader, address the issue of trust?

Entire books have been written about trust, but, for the purpose of this article, I'll stick with two quick tips.

The first comes from the book, The Leadership Challenge. In their survey of leadership behaviors, James Kouzes and Barry Posner asked the question, "What do you look for in a credible (i.e. - trustworthy) person?" The number one response - "They do what they say they are going to do." So, trust building tip number one - do what you say you're going to do.

The second idea comes from the world of social psychology. Social science researchers have identified a key behavioral principle that affects the development of trust. This principle is known as the Principle of Reciprocity. The Principle of Reciprocity states that we tend to feel obligated to repay in kind what someone else has given to us. In a nutshell, it says that if you want trust, you must first give trust. Trust building tip number two - show people you trust them if you want them to trust you.

Trust issues almost always come back to the leader. It's possible that you can have isolated trust issues with just a few people. In this case, it may be just their personal problem. If you find yourself or if you hear someone else asking the questions at the top of this page - look out. You may have a systemic trust problem. If that's the case, your team is either in trouble or it's about to be in trouble. Carefully evaluate what might have happened or might be happening to damage trust and immediately start applying the two tips above to begin the repair.

You may use this article for electronic distribution if you will include all contact information with live links back to the author. Notification of use is not required, but I would appreciate it. Please contact the author prior to use in printed media.

Copyright 2005, Guy Harris

Guy Harris is a Relationship Repairman and People-Process Integrator. His background includes service as a US Navy Submarine Officer, functional management with major multi-national corporations, and senior management in an international chemical business. As the owner of Principle Driven Consulting, he helps entrepreneurs, business managers, and other organizational leaders improve team performance by applying the principles of human behavior.

Guy co-authored "The Behavior Bucks System(tm)" to help parents reduce stress and conflict with their children by effectively applying behavioral principles in the home. Learn more about this book at

Learn more about Guy at

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