Trust in Action

This article was first published in TRUST MAGAZINE winter 2016

Most executives give little thought, if any, to how trust in action strengthens the performance of organizations. Trust is just not a priority for them. Why that is so remains a leadership puzzlement, especially when a growing body of evidence indicates that trust is key to success.

In one-on-one conversations leaders often admit that, in fact, they are not sure how to build trust. But such moments of candor are brief and generally followed by rationalizing that trust-building takes too much time anyway.

Whatever rationale is put forward to ignore trust; the fact remains trust is not just nice to have. It’s the center piece that determines how individuals behave and interact — whether team members are open with information or secretive, inclined to help out or hold back, willing to take risks or just looking to play it safe.

What to do?

Rather than thinking about trust in the abstract, it is more beneficial to consider trust in action; how can leaders learn to weave trust into the fabric of organizational effectiveness?

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I propose this one and a few thoughts about how to bring trust to four areas that are critical to success:
Trust in Action

  • initiative,
  • collaboration,
  • conflict resolution,
  • accountability.


Initiative cannot spring from fearful waters. Too many leaders extol empowerment, then smother initiative with behaviors that induce caution. Leaders easily forget that putting forth a new idea fundamentally implies taking a risk; the risk of exposing oneself to the criticism of others. In many organizations, that risk is not worth taking.

These actions will powerfully demonstrate that the leader can be trusted in difficult moments.

  • Listen to new ideas.
  • Do not ridicule or disparage the idea or the person.
  • Provide complementary information that others may not have.
  • Let ideas have a chance to evolve and mature.
  • Do not overreact to mistakes.
  • Watch your temper.
  • Create the opportunity for learning by leading the way toward a solution.

People take initiative when they are confident that new ideas and new approaches will be carefully considered.


No mystery here. Collaboration develops with trust, and trust alone. Collaboration contracts and withers away when individuals believe others take their help for granted, fail to reciprocate, or worst, take credit for their efforts.

As the leader, you must send out clear signals:

  • Value collaboration and trustworthy behavior.
  • Recognize helpful people, particularly the quiet ones.
  • Keep your eye out for those that are loud and self-serving.
  • Establish an environment of fairness.
  • Act promptly to dissuade uncooperative behavior.

When a culture of integrity becomes obvious, people who only want to play games and promote themselves are likely to do you the favor of leaving on their own.


Difference of opinions can arise anywhere. In fact, healthy cultures encourage debate as a way to check assumptions and stimulate new ideas.

The challenge, however, is how to resolve differences productively before they turn into destructive conflict. In many organizations, conflict is so pervasive that people have long given up raising issues in the open. Behind a mask of cordial hypocrisy, everyone continues to fight in the wings.

It is a leader’s role to channel differences of opinion into new solutions. Nobody trusts the leader that leaves others to struggle with unresolved conflicts day in, day out.

Healthy leadership includes:

  • Handling differences of opinion and conflicts when they surface.
  • Put the challenge openly to the group to find a solution.
  • Avoid blaming people.
  • Remind people of the target outcome.
  • Encourage productive conversation.

Trust builds as people experience they can discuss divergent views and come to productions conclusions as a group.


The word “accountability” itself comes all wrapped up in mistrust. Most people fear that judgment is passed on them using performance standards are unclear or unrealistic. In short, accountability is viewed as a rigged game.

When accountability is set up in vague terms and without proper context, it undermines both initiative and collaboration; it also incites finger-pointing and blame.

  • To turn around the accountability process,
  • Engage the group into a conversation about desired outcomes.
  • Let the group define what needs to be accomplished.
  • Encourage team members to contribute to the design of commitments and measurements.
  • Allow people to experience more in control of their destiny, so they will want to contribute actively and do it well.

When connected to trust, accountability loses the bad taste of enforcement and transforms into genuine engagement and responsibility.

Take away

Trust isn’t rocket science, but it does require leaders to adopt it as a constant practice. Make trust a top leadership priority. It will make your job a lot easier, and your organization more effective.

In every decision and interaction, ask yourself “Is what I am doing or saying enhancing trust, or damaging it?”

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