Leadership & Trust

By Chris Chittenden

In our article Effective Leadership, we have explored our interpretation of leadership - "Managing what could be". In much of the literature available in the popular press, there is a strong emphasis on the link between trust and effective leadership. We support that emphasis and would like to explore the link in more detail.

Trust is usually seen as the key to successful relationships, but just exactly what is trust? Let us begin with an interpretation.

Trust is not an independent entity. It does not exist out there but rather it lives in each one of us. Trust is something that we ascribe as individuals. It is assessments that we make of others in the context of our relationship with them. However, when we talk of assessments of trust, what are we assessing? Through his landmark work, "The Ontology of Language", Rafael Echeverria has defined trust as a set of three separate assessments. Each of these assessments relate to our experience of another, either directly or indirectly.

Firstly there is the assessment of sincerity - does this person say to others what they say to themselves? Next there is an assessment of competence - can this person do what they are claiming they can do? Do they have the skills, the resources etc? Lastly, there is the assessment of reliability (responsibility) - has this person kept their promises in the past?

When we explore the nature of trust in more depth, firstly we can say that trust is fundamentally about future action. If we are to coordinate with that person in the future, then our assessment of trust in the relationship with that person will have an impact on that future action.

Secondly, we can say that because trust is an assessment about the future, there will always be an assessment of risk involved as well. Trust is not simply a black and white assessment of someone’s sincerity, competence and reliability, it is an assessment of the extent of those components. Therefore we can talk about a range of trust that goes from distrust to varying degrees of prudence to blind trust.

Having clarified just what trust is, next we must ask ourselves why it is so important to leaders? We say that leaders "take people places that they would not go by themselves". Are you inclined to go somewhere like that with someone you did not trust? Probably not, but why not?

One answer lies in the interpretation that trust is the keystone to coordinating action with others. It is the glue that binds together our relationships. The degree of our assessment of trust will impact on how we go about coordinating future action with others. If we have a low level of trust in our relationship with another, we may decide that the risk of coordinating with them is too great and decline their offers or requests. In other words, we will not work with or follow them at all. Alternatively, we might choose to develop contingencies around any promises that we agree with them. The cost, then, of low trust for a leader can be seen as a divergence from a common direction as those they seek to lead put in place contingency plans that they feel are required in case the leader does not deliver on their promises. The less trust, the greater the contingency required. This cost can be very great indeed.

On the other side of the coin, many leaders have difficulty trusting those that they seek to lead. In general, this mistrust is an untested assessment. In other words, the lack of trustworthiness is assumed because of a general sense of not trusting others. Because of this mistrust or at least prudence, many leaders resort to establish either covert or overt control systems in their management style - interviewing, interrogating, telling and explaining.

Unfortunately this may have the opposite effect than that desired by a leader, if they are seeking to be trusted by others. It creates an environment where employees feel that indeed they are not trusted, which in turn breeds resentment and erodes the very trust that leaders seek to establish.

The difficulty for many leaders is that this tendency to not trust others is transparent to them. They do not see it in themselves and are not aware of this attitude to others. For many leaders, breaking this transparency is the first step to establishing higher assessments of trust in their relationships.

So what should you do if you want to lead others?

Firstly, be honest and consistent in what you say to others. Don’t develop strategies for dealing with others, this only leads to a sense of being manipulated. Speaking from a clear set of values will help you achieve this goal.

Next, understand the importance of promises and the distinctions of the promise cycle. Promises are the key to establishing and maintaining trust. Every time that you make a promise, it will have an impact on your future relationship with the others who are involved. A promise that is kept or well managed will enhance your relationship. A promise that is broken or poorly managed will sour it.

Remember that, in the first instance, many people will trust you, but you can quickly erode this trust and once lost it is very, very hard to recover.

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© 1998 Chris Chittenden