By Jeswald W. Salacuse
If trusting someone is like making an investment in that person, trust is therefore a form of capital. Like any entrepreneur starting a business, you as a leader of people have the task of raising and using that capital for the benefit of the organization. Leaders often mistakenly assume that they acquire the capital of trust by virtue of their position and title. You gain the trust of the people you lead not by the fact that you have been appointed managing partner, CEO or president, but by the fact that each of them individually and in varying degrees is willing to grant it to you.
Trust is also like capital in two other respects. First, it is not permanent. Just as investors in a company’s stock sell out or abandon the investment at any time when they decide future prospects are bad, followers can lose confidence in their leaders and therefore withdraw their trust when they feel their interests are threatened.
Second, just as a dynamic business always needs new capital for its growth, a leader constantly needs to strengthen and renew the trust of the persons he leads in order to introduce innovations or to overcome new challenges to the organization.
If trust is like capital held by the people you lead, how do you raise that capital from them so that you can use it to lead them? How do you capitalize your leadership?
At the outset, you need to realize that you gain trust only if another person is willing to give it to you freely. No matter the degree of your power and legal authority over the people you are to lead, you can’t compel them to give you your trust. They may follow your orders out of fear, but that doesn’t mean they trust you. So leaders who declare to their followers “Trust me!” almost never get what they are looking for.
Secondly, trust requires knowledge and information. No one can trust another person until he or she knows something about that person.
Trust by Increments
A first step in seeking to gain the trust of the people you lead is to let them get to know you in a way that allows them to evaluate your intentions and the impact that you may have on their interests. The precise knowledge about you that your followers are seeking is information that will allow them to make predictions about your future actions with respect to their interests. What this means is that they are not just seeking to learn about your golf game or your college exploits, but about your capabilities, intentions and values as they may affect them. One of the important ways you can convey these factors is not just through your own declarations but equally important by getting to know the people you lead.
Trust in a leader does not just spring full blown into existence the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. Instead, followers’ trust in their leaders grows one small step at a time. It evolves by increments. Over time, with increasing knowledge of and experience with each other, with more and more evidence that the leader is open to his followers, involves them in decision making, and actually delivers on his promises, followers increase their level of trust in their leaders.
In organizations, leaders can often begin the process of creating trust by trusting first—by taking actions that show their trust in the people they are trying to lead. Usually, by trusting first, you make yourself vulnerable to the unpredictable and potentially harmful responses of other persons. But, as with capital, you can’t gain trust from others unless you yourself have first invested some of your own.
It is equally important for you to build trust among your followers. Developing trust among the people you lead is also an incremental process. They will not trust each other because you order them to any more than they will trust you because you say so. Your followers will learn to trust one another through experiences of working together and discovering the experience has advanced, or at least not injured, their interests. One way that you can facilitate this is to develop joint activities, such as organizational planning and cross-functional problem solving, to give them the experience of working together and hopefully achieving the positive results that lead to increased trust.
Obstacles to Trust
Creating trust is not just a matter of a leader’s good intentions. In the course of a leadership journey, a leader, like a white-water canoeist, must navigate to avoid numerous obstacles, both apparent and hidden, that threaten to prevent the development of trust or destroy the trust that exists.
Here are a few of the obstacles that every leader should be alert to:
Lack of time. Building trust takes time. The pressure to achieve organizational results rapidly through sudden changes and innovations when a new leader arrives on the scene often increases distrust. When possible, leaders should seek to lay the foundation of trust before introducing sweeping change.
The perceived untrustworthy act. Psychological research clearly shows that actions by a leader, regardless of good intentions, that followers perceive as untrustworthy serve to undermine the development of trust. So, in making decisions, leaders need to ask: How will my followers perceive my action? Often they may interpret a leader’s inconsistent acts as evidence of untrustworthiness. While one perceived untrustworthy act will not permanently prevent the development of trust with the people you lead, you will have to work hard and persistently to overcome its effects.
An overly competitive environment. An overly competitive environment within organizations, a phenomenon often fostered by leaders as a means to increase productivity and motivate followers, can also serve to undermine trust. In an overly competitive environment, members of the group view each other as threats to their interests and therefore have a disincentive to trust one another. The challenge for any leader is to foster trust and cooperation and at the same time find ways to encourage each member to make a maximum contribution to the organization.
Leadership mobility. Trust is personal. Followers develop trust in the leader’s person, not the position or title. Because trust creation takes time, frequent changes of leadership in organizations, so common in contemporary American institutions, tend to inhibit the development of trust. Each time a new leader arrives on the scene, the process of trust creation must begin anew. Moreover, knowing that a new leader will probably not stay long on the job, members may see little point in investing the time and effort in developing working relationships characterized by a high degree of trust.
The exaggerated leadership ego. All of us have egos, and all of us—leaders and followers—pursue our own interests. While recognizing these facts, followers also demand leaders who will at the same time work to advance followers’ interests. It is only when they are certain of a leader’s intentions in this regard that they are willing to grant their trust.
This article is excerpted from Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich and Powerful People. Copyright 2005, Jeswald W. Slacuse. Published by AMACOM, AMA’s book division.
About the Author(s)
Jeswald W. Salacuse is professor of law and former dean at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and author of Leading Leaders.