Trust at Work


Trust and Leadership

trustI believe at the core of leadership is whether the leader is trusted by others. Would you be motivated to believe and follow a manager who you did not trust? How would the staff work to accomplish the plans and goals put forward by that leader or manager? Whether you are the owner of a business, the leader of a nonprofit, or a government official, leadership starts with Trust.

This is true not only in leadership, but in all business transaction. I was once  involved in the sale of a business to a venture capital organization. Although there was substantial due diligence and extensive legal scrutiny before the finalization of the contract, one of the principles made a memorable statement. He said that, despite all this investigative work, the most important factor was trust. Can we trust that the seller, in this case, is truthful? Can we trust that the buyer will honor all of their commitments?

The subject of trust is explored well in the book, The Thin Book of Trust-Building Trust in the Workplace by Charles Feltman. He begins by sighting surveys which indicate that “we generally find others to be less trustworthy than ourselves.” He further defines trust “as choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions. The disaster of distrust in the workplace is that the strategies people use to protect themselves inevitably get in the way of their ability to work with others.” Feltman continues to focus on four distinctions of trust; sincerity, reliability, competence, and care.


How honest is the person? Do they say what they mean and mean what they say? This is usually the first step in establishing one’s trust. I was recently in a meeting where we were hearing a proposal on a new marketing plan for a company. Prior to that meeting, we had provide an analysis of the current situation and the needs, as we saw them. Shortly into the presentation, I concluded that he was promoting his own agenda and not one that addressed our needs. We concluded that we could not trust his sincerity. Although this is a specific situation, haven’t you had a similar ones where your instincts told you to beware? Were you willing to risk something you valued, your financial resources, to the actions of that person?


Once sincerity is established, the next test of trust is reliability. When they commit to a completion date, is that achieved as promised? Can you count on them to deliver? A friend of mind has a long history with a small firm and over that period of time he was established as the best worker. When it was a tough or difficult job, where both skill, knowledge and planning were required, he received that assignment. He could always be counted on to do the work right and complete it on time. Over those years he had often discussed his future with the company owner, who promised that in time he would receive a promotion with increased responsibilities. It must be recognized that in a small firm it is difficult to replace a key productive employee and provide them the opportunity to advance.  In this case, the employee eventually lost trust in the owner’s reliability. Although it is easy to understand the owner’s situation, that loss of reliability from the employee’s perspective caused him to leave for another opportunity.


Competence is the ability to do what you do or propose to do. Can a leader manage an accounting department and not understand the principles of the business? Can an engineer lead an engineering project and not understand the science and technologies involved? Can a contractor build a house without any experience? There are those who study management that say a good manager can manage any situation.Trust

In his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?  Louis Gerstner Jr. describes how, with a strong management team, they saved IBM from certain bankruptcy. Mr. Gerstner did not come from a technology background such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Although he spent time with McKinsey in consulting, his leadership was developed at American Express and Nabisco. Gerstner built a team at IBM, who understood the market and technology. In his book, he credits the turnaround success at IBM to that team. His competence was not understanding the work. It was in building the team and creating the vision for the future.

On the other hand, would you have trust in a builder who never built a house or a baker who never made a loaf of bread? Would you have confidence in the leader in a nonprofit charity who did not understand the needs of the clients?

Can we conclude that competence is situational and in the eye of the beholder?


The question here is do they have the other person’s interest in mind? That other person might be any one of the business stakeholder. Those being; clients, owners, customers, employees, suppliers, and the community. Does the leader have the interest of the shareholders in mind or do his personal priorities have the highest priority? There is no doubt that self-centered people will occasionally rise in an organization to a leadership position. I’m sure that you have seen this happen and share my experience that they do not last very long. Trust is never established and the team rejects their leadership.

In our coaching practice, we work to build trust at all levels, not only between the leader and the followers but among the followers. It involves assessing and building empathy through improved communications stills.