When it comes to workplace behaviors, leadership is the most sought after. It’s also probably the most written about topic. A search on Amazon will yield more than 100,000 leadership books. But where do we start? What is the most important component of leadership?

Organizational research votes for one key quality – trustworthiness. Yes. Good old trust. As subjective as it may be, trust not only impacts employees’ loyalty towards their organization, but also their ability to collaborate, take risks and feel a sense of safety (Mayer et al 1995). Let’s explore how leaders can build trust.

Sharing information and responsibility 

Hubspot started with a lean team of 15 people. But the team size expanded from 15 to 50 within a span of nine months. Mike Volpe, the Chief Marketing Officer says, “I remember looking at our team meeting and seeing only new faces.” He could barely remember the names of new employees, yet had the task of ensuring the team functioned well. As a first step, he decided to win the trust of this new group.

He enforced radical transparency and went all out on information about goals, financials, performance metrics, mistakes made, milestones achieved and pathways for the future. He believed that keeping such key information from employees would bring barriers in engaging with them. As even a commonsense approach would suggest, non-transparency fuels the rumor mill. Known as the open-book path to employee engagement, transparency in a leader is a compelling way to display character – one’s values, intentions, and integrity.

Volpe also facilitated autonomy of teams. When the team was small, he would oversee and approve the deliverables.  But as they grew, Volpe realized that he “became a giant bottleneck… and needed to trust the team to get things out.” This provided people with a sense of responsibility, authority and choice. According to Prof. Kenneth Thomas, this motivates people more, as they have freedom to do their work in the way they want, and feel valued.

Connecting first, leading next

Another example is of when Jane McIntyre became United Way’s CEO in 2009. The organization was going through a rough patch, after being criticized for misuse of donations, layoffs and unreasonable executive salaries. A lot of employees were confused and angry. McIntyre had to steer the ship back to calm waters, and she knew she needed the team’s help. On priority, she established high-approachability. As the staff assembled to welcome her, she pointed to a thick glass installed between the executive’s office and the lobby, and said “You see that door? It’s always shut. But from now on, it’s never going to close.” It was a big win!

This strategy of McIntyre’s to connect first, and then lead, is gold. According to Prof. David DeSteno, North-Western University, as a person’s power increases, their perceived trustworthiness decreases. Hence, it’s important to make employees believe that you are one of them. Psychologists say a great way to do so is to commit small blunders, which makes one seem a little vulnerable. Known as the pratfall effect, this strategy debunks the myth that trust building is a slow process.

All this may seem commonsensical, but you’d be surprised to know that by and large trust is on the decline, in organizations. Thus, the practice of building trust becomes all the more pertinent. After all, as J.M Barrie wrote in Peter Pan, “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”

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