Better Boss: Trust

Why is trust so important and how do you build and maintain it?

6 min readMay 22, 2022

I’m going to let you into a secret. Trust at work isn’t about people falling backwards and the boss catching them — unless we’re talking in metaphors. Trust is about an assumption of transparency and reciprocity. It’s a relationship of interdependence. Too many bosses are tempted to think that their formal authority should short-cut the process of establishing trust. But trust is the great leveller. You can’t fake trust. So even if the people you lead want to trust you, they’ll be unable to fake it unless as a leader we invest energy in making it real.

Trust is a belief between people that there’s a mutual commitment to acting in the other persons interests. It’s also a belief that the outward signs and signals we can perceive are consistent with internal motivation and intent. When we trust someone we have a shared reality.

Features of trust:

  • Investment in a shared reality
  • Consistency between what’s thought and felt, what is said and what’s done

Trust is important because without it, the people we lead will divert energy and attention, as they second-guess intent and motivation. It can become exhausting working with people you don’t trust. You’re constantly engaged in two sets of interactions — the text and the subtext, as you try to detect, decipher and decode what’s being withheld or concealed in a situation or interaction. When we trust, we take subtext for granted — we have a shared reality, mutual commitment and consistency of assumptions, words and actions. There is no source of dissonance to undermine performance.

Patrick Lencioni describes trust as the foundation of functional teams. Teams who don’t trust each other divert energy away from their objective. When we build relationships of trust with indivudals and within teams, we make better things. So how do you establish and build trust?

Tip 1: Make and keep promises — To build trust, you need to be trustworthy. So give people evidence that you are. You can do this by making and keeping promises. Eddie Obeng taught me this. They don’t need to big or complex things. It could be promising a followup email. It could be arranging a meeting. It could be making an introduction. Any small act is a way of demonstrating that you keep your promises. When you say you’re going to do a thing, do it. And when you do it, remind the person that this is you delivering on a promise. You might think this would sound awkward or forced, but it’s easy to pop in “As promised…” at the start of a sentence.

This also means you need to be careful when you make a promise. Think before you act or make promises. Trust is an implicit assumption between people. We can build towards this implicit belief by providing explicit information and signals. Over time the brain begins to take it for granted. Trust becomes an implict assumption in interactions. It takes time to build trust. Try making and keeping seven promises to embed this shortcut. And remember, although it usually takes around seven times to build, trust can be destroyed by one broken promise.

Tip 2: Put them first (at least sometimes) — show that you understand what’s important to other people by putting them first sometimes. Invest energy in helping them to achieve their goals. You can combine this with Tip 1 — make promises that are important to the other person and keep the promise.

Relationships are built by demonstrating empathy. We can build empathy by paying attention to how other people think and feel. Demonstrating that you’re doing this will build trust. Active listening is a great way of building empathy and demonstrating you care.

Active listening encourages us to “talk tentatively” — talk about behaviours without making assumptions about intent or motivation. Use this to open up questions about this — this gives you more information. Then invest in creating a shared language to express mutual commitments and objectives.

Don’t take credit for the work of your team or invest in self-promotion more than you do in supporting and celebrating other people. Generosity builds trust. But it needs to be genuine. Don’t try to leverage investment in other people to extort discretionary effort or try to invoke reciprocity. Forgive people their mistakes. Don’t hold grudges.

Tip 3: Earn credibility by showing people what you’re good at. People will trust a boss to make decisions when they show competence. So, remind people what you’re good at. Competence is inspiring. Don’t show off. But be willing to demonstrate your expertise. This becomes evidence for why people should follow your lead. And competence in one area will create a “halo effect” where the trust and respect extends from core areas of strength to trust in more contexts. Most relatiosnhips of trust will begin with an emotion. But if we can reinforce this emotional commitment with a rational decision, the trust will be even stronger. So show people what you’re good at.

You can also establish trust by being honest about areas where you have development needs. Showing vulnerability builds trust just as much as showing strength and it creates a more rounded relationship of trust.

Vulnerability is often a more powerful signal of investing in shared reality — as you grow to trust someone you’re more willing to reveal weakness. Showing vulnerability with authenticity needn’t undermine your credibility as a leader. You can also strengthen trust by admiting mistakes. No-one is perfect. Try to maintain the confidence to admit mistakes. Remember: trying to conceal a mistake is likely to lead to two mistakes — the original one and the damage to your relationships of trust.

Tip 4: Be transparent and plain spoken. Showing vulnerability is a form of transparency — it reveals our internal reality to other people. Trust can be eroded when people feel as though we’re using words to obscure intent or a hidden reality that we’re not sharing.

When people feel like we’re trying to avoid answering a question, we damage trust. Being transparent doesn't mean that we need to answer every question or share every piece of information. But communicating with clarity when we can, and having the confidence to be open when there are things we can’t talk about will help to build trust. Have the courage to say “no.” Sometimes bosses have to say no. When we’re clear in those moments we’re more likely to earn respect and trust.

Tip 5: Trust other people. Trust is a two-way street. It’s very difficult to trust someone who we feel doesn’t trust us, so find ways to trust and show you trust other people. Transparency and vulnerability are two ways of demonstrating that you take the reciprocity of trust seriously. Find other ways to reinforce this.

Bosses sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they need to conceal their doubt and other emotions. But emotions provide the setting for our interactions. Developing the emotional intelligence to know how we’re feeling, and sharing this with our teams when it affects our interactions will build deeper relationships of trust.

Tip 6: Esatblish norms and maintain them — be consistent. Consistency breeds trust. When people know the “rules” of a relationship they can make intentional choices about their interactions. But when we change the rules halfway through an interaction (ie. by pulling rank in a debate and relying on opinion rather than data) we erode trust. We essentially say that our formal power puts us in control of reality, stripping those we lead of autonomy and agency.

Set expectations and include yourself in the standards you expect from others. Being principled requires us to have principles. So spend some time identifying what you value, communicate this and remain consistent.

Tip 7: Be patient — trust takes time. Trust is like a Lego DeathStar. It takes ages to build and is easy to break. Be patient. Act consistently over time, make promises and keep them. Put other people first, sometimes. Trust is built by investing in a shared reality and objectives. But also invest in the priorities of other people when they don’t directly benefit you. Be generous. Earn respect through competence, but have the confidence to share the real you — don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Be transparent. Use simple language. You’re the boss, so if there’s an elephant in the room — be the one to point it out, it makes it less weird and scary for everyone else. Recognise that unless you trust others, it will be hard for them to trust you. So let people into your world. And do all this repeatedly, over time, again and again.

This post is part of the Better Bosses Blog Series.




I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)