12 Ideas to Help Leaders Strengthen the Bond of Trust with Employees

Shaking hands to their success
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 What are the most important three words in a manager-employee relationship?

“I trust you.”

A solid foundation of trust is critical to any healthy and productive relationship. Trust is the biggest and most important building block of teams, marriages, friendships, and the relationship between a leader and his/her employees.

Without trust, communication, coaching, engagement, and the ability to manage change all break down, productivity suffers, and your most valued employees become flight risks.

One of the toughest messages I’ve had to deliver as an executive coach is to present data to a leader that their employees don’t trust them. Most leaders see themselves as trustworthy and when presented with evidence to the contrary are either disappointed or angered. Finding out their employees don’t trust them or question their integrity can be devastating and difficult to accept.

If you’ve received this feedback, or suspect people do not trust you, here are 12 things you can do to begin to re-build a foundation of trust.

12 Ideas to Strengthen Trust with Your Team Members

1. Remember the words, “Your do must match your tell.” These wise words serve as a reminder to back your statements with actions and to be careful to avoid making more commitments than you can keep. If you make a commitment, develop a system to ensure that you keep it. Busy managers make a lot of promises with good intentions.

However, if you don’t do what you say you are going to do, you can be perceived as unreliable and untrustworthy.

2. Keep confidences. Being seen as someone who can't keep a secret is another cause of mistrust. However, as a manager, don’t promise confidentiality if you aren’t sure if you can or should keep the information from others (i.e., performance, legal, ethical issues).

3. Admit your mistakes. Admitting your mistakes (or weaknesses) shows vulnerability, humility, and accountability. That point in time when you own up to your mistake in public is an important credibility builder. Never look for someone else to blame. Share what you learned from your mistake and then move on.

4. Seek feedback. While feedback that suggests your employees don’t trust you is a tough pill to swallow, acceptance is the first step to recovery. Ideally, the feedback will offer specific examples to help you pinpoint what behaviors of your are damaging the trust people place in you.

See How to Get Candid Feedback.

5. Share credit and acknowledge the contributions of others. Always place your team members directly in the spotlight for accomplishments—even if you had a hand in helping them along. Serve as an advocate for the ideas from your team members and peers. And never, ever steal an employee’s idea and claim it as your own.

6. Don’t do anything “newsworthy”. That is, don’t do anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable reading about in the newspaper the next day. The measure of as a leader is defined by the decisions made while no one is watching. Your ethical standards and values should be on display and reinforced in every decision and action you take.

7. Don’t gossip. Ever! Even casual “water-cooler” conversations can be misinterpreted or your comments can easily be taken out of context. Never talk about others behind their backs, unless you are passing along a positive comment about their efforts. Negative words have a habit of making the rounds as do the positive words. Make certain your words are always positive.

8. Share information. Leaders often keep people in the dark about where they are going or what they are planning. In the absence of good information, people draw their own conclusions and then engage in counter-productive gossip. Guesswork is a shaky foundation of trust. Give people consistent updates, status reports, and explain the reasons for your decisions.

9. Get to know people and develop relationships. If you take the time to get to know others and share information about yourself, people will be less likely to question your motives and give you the benefit of the doubt.

Showing interest in people’s activities and lives is a form of respect and respect is the foundation of trust.

10. Clarify and communicate your values. Great leaders are crystal clear on their values and use their values guide their behaviors and decisions. With a clear and consistent set of values, or guiding principles, leaders demonstrate consistently in their behavior and others understand where they are coming from and why.

11. Be a straight-shooter. When asked a question, give a complete, direct answer – no smoke and mirrors. If you don’t have the answer, don’t fake it. Saying, “I don’t know,” shows people that you are comfortable being honest with them. If you promise to get back to them, make certain to live up to your commitment.

12. Trust your employees. As a leader, it’s not your employee’s responsibility to “earn” your trust. You assume your employees are trustworthy and treat them like you trust them. Your employees will be more willing to trust you if they know you trust them.

The Bottom Line:

Trust is a precious asset that is difficult to develop and easy to squander. Remember, as a leader, your actions are under constant surveillance by your team members. Work hard at strengthening the bonds of trust with positive actions every single day.


Updated by Art Petty