Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

The Importance of Trust: Five Practical Ways for Relational Leaders to Build and Maintain Trust

By Russ Davidson

MAOL Alumnus

Sometimes, the most impactful way to appreciate something's value is to understand the consequences of its absence. Can we appreciate light if we’ve never experienced darkness? Can we fully know joy without knowing sadness? What about trust? If you’ve experienced a relationship where trust is compromised or nonexistent, you know its value. Trusting a process or person implies confidence that they will not hurt or violate us. Trust makes it possible to rely on the character, ability, strength, or integrity of someone or something. Brené Brown tells us that trust allows us to drop our personal armor, become vulnerable, and show up wholeheartedly each day as the fully human person we are. Trust is the foundation for meaningful relationships where people feel safe to be themselves, fully human, flaws and all.

Relational leaders influence others through personal connections and the building of trust. They find ways to develop, nurture, and maintain relationships. These relationships create the backdrop for an environment where people genuinely appreciate each other. Relational leaders find value in a culture that promotes teamwork and see their roles in work and life as something bigger than themselves. High-functioning teams require trust. Meaningful relationships are a natural result of trust. For those interested in developing the habits of relational leaders, in strengthening relationships and human connections, here are five practical ways for leaders to build trust:

  1. Communicate transparently, intentionally, and honestly. Communicating is a two-way process that includes active listening. We promote a culture of distrust when we fail to listen, and this failure actively discourages human connection and shuts down communication. When we talk, we must be clear and thoughtful as we share the important things that matter — the things people need to know. Sharing
    information helps us all feel informed and included, which creates trust. Find or create words with shared or special meanings in your group or team. I use a whiteboard to share words, thoughts, and ideas. Some words remain on the board and in our discussions for a week; others remain for months. When these words stop generating meaningful conversations, it’s time to find new ones. It’s
    remarkable how these words and discussions become a permanent part of our workplace culture and commonly shared vocabulary. Learn the words schadenfreude and freudenfreude and discover the subtle but very real and meaningful difference between a discussion and a dialogue. You can permanently change culture with 10-12 well-chosen words or phrases throughout the year.

  2. Participate in what’s happening. If it’s important to your team, make it important to you. Your team knows your place and theirs in the organizational chart. Make your leadership about people and connection, not position. Relationships defined by the relative location of names within ovals on an organizational chart limit the ability to positively influence others and create a culture where transactional relationships quickly become the norm. If it’s Flip-Flop Friday, wear your flip-flops with your
    favorite pair of blue jeans. If the rest of the organization is participating in team building activities or training, be part of the action. If you don’t let the organizational chart define you and your relationships, your team won’t either.

  3. Celebrate the wins — big and small. Don’t miss the chance to respectfully celebrate the noteworthy achievements of your team or one of its members. Celebrate promotions, birthdays, work anniversaries, children’s graduations, and other meaningful events in their work and personal lives. Celebrations create waves of positive energy that ripple throughout the entire organization. As a bonus, celebrations provide leaders with tangible ways to show an awareness of what’s happening in other people’s lives. What’s better than a leader who knows and celebrates your personal and professional wins?

  4. Evaluate. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can make me believe they look forward to formal performance evaluations. We must be honest about the value of our current evaluation process and consider whether it’s time for a paradigm shift in how we think and communicate about performance reviews. Leaders who sleepwalk through performance evaluations communicate disinterest and compromise whatever trust does exist. But when we use reviews as listening, trust-building opportunities, we discover actionable ideas. To really put a spin on that paradigm, let your employees evaluate you and your leadership performance. Leaders know their weaknesses, and so do their team members. If the team feels safe and trusts your leadership, they will be honest and likely tell you many things you already
    know. I’ve done this and have always found something worthy of immediate action. It is a humbling experience filled with opportunities to test, strengthen, and hopefully, open new lines of communication while building meaningful connections and adding more bricks to the foundation of trust. Note: Only do this if you are prepared to listen and make the changes you likely already know are needed.

  5. Educate. It’s not the leader's job to “educate” everyone or always be the “smartest person in the room.” However, it is the leader’s job to stay curious and never stop learning. It is our job to model what it means to be an eager, willing learner. Become a student. Read everything. Ask questions. Demonstrate vulnerability and be courageous (and wise) enough to learn from those around you. If the leader doesn’t
    let their position in the org chart get in the way of learning, others won’t either. Few things are more powerful and inspiring than a leader who is a true adult learner. Others will notice your humble approach and passion for learning. That passion will inspire others to do the same. These willing and excited learners are your future leaders and your next opportunity to learn a new or better way.

Nothing I’ve shared here is groundbreaking. In fact, Dale Carnegie was teaching these same principles in his public speaking classes well over one hundred years ago and nearly twenty-five years before he wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People. He built an empire by relating to people, building relationships, and teaching millions of others to do the same. Certainly, we have more science-based research and theory today than he did, but the principles remain the same and are as relevant today as ever.

Could a leader’s effectiveness really be as simple as showing genuine interest and curiosity in others and the things that are important to them? How powerful is a sincere and interested smile? What if leaders knew the names — including how to pronounce and spell those names — of the people around them? The words we use are important. However, even the best-intentioned and most thoughtful words will occasionally fail and fall short. At some point, we will miscommunicate an important idea or simply be misunderstood, but genuine human connection and meaningful relationships are the keys to reopening the door when our words fail. When we’ve built relationships and trust, communication prospers. Focusing on trust, relationships, and real human connection will never be a mistake.

Russ is part of the leadership team at the Probate Court of Mobile County. His official title is Chief of Recording, a position he has held for 10 years. He also assists in the court’s HR functions and election division, having worked in over 20 State and Federal elections. Before this, he worked for 15 years in the real estate industry. He recently earned his Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Harding University.

Russ resides in Mobile, AL, with his wife, Amanda. She is a first grade teacher in the Mobile
County Public School System. They have a son, Ethan, who recently graduated from
Harding, and a daughter, Abby, who will start her third year at Harding this fall.