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Build Your Reputation as a Trustworthy Leader


Jun. 12, 2021 Harvard Business Review

His defensiveness was intense. He insisted he had kept his commitments, delivered positive results, and hadn’t ever acted deceitfully or unscrupulously. And all of those things were true.

Like many leaders, he was shocked to learn that the standards of trustworthiness have risen significantly as the world’s experience of honesty and trust have descended into a freefall. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that government, NGOs, and media have continued to lose trust while business barely hangs on as the only institution people view as competent and ethical. People’s expectations and definition of trustworthiness are broadening for leaders, and it takes a lot to gain that trust.

The findings of my 15-year longitudinal study of more than 3,200 leaders on organizational honesty for my book, To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice, and Purpose, also show that to earn and keep trust, leaders must accept that reliability and integrity are merely table stakes. They don’t, on their own, earn you a reputation of being trustworthy. They may get you labeled as dependable or easy to work with, but to be trusted consistently requires more. If you want to be certain that the people you lead see you as trustworthy, here are four practices to master. My research revealed that if you do, you’ll be 16 times more likely to earn and keep the trust of others.

Be who you say you are.

Consciously or not, we all navigate the world guided by a set of values that are revealed by our actions. We may say we value compassion, but if the first question we ask upon hearing someone plowed into our new car in the parking lot is, “How bad is the damage?” instead of “Was anyone hurt?” our commitment to compassion appears pretty thin. Others judge our trustworthiness by the extent to which our actions and words match. Here’s how to make sure they do.

Embody your stated values. The first thing you must do is articulate your values so others know what to expect. Importantly, though, good intentions don’t count. One of the issues in Gabe’s feedback was that he routinely extolled the importance of teamwork and being an “all for one” team. But during meetings, he became impatient with others’ updates and was sarcastic with his feedback. Although he didn’t intend it, his actions intimidated others and prevented them from participating, so he’d lost their trust.

Your values serve as a yardstick that others use to gauge their experience of you. If you haven’t articulated them, people are left to make assumptions that may not align with what you believe. And if you have articulated them, as Gabe did, be especially vigilant about embodying them. Make a list of your most important values and for each, define the ways you intend for them to appear in your day-to-day actions.

Acknowledge any say-do gaps. None of us are consistent all the time. Identify the places where your actions have belied your values, leading to unintended consequences for others, like Gabe’s behavior in meetings. Where necessary, apologize to those who’ve experienced those consequences. Otherwise, as with Gabe, the hypocrisy people attribute to you will erode trust quickly. But demonstrating humility for the impact of those moments can be a trust multiplier as people see that you’re humble enough to take responsibility when your words and actions don’t match.

Treat others and their work with dignity.

In an economy where people’s primary output is often a reflection of themselves — their ideas, insights, and ingenuity — the importance of treating both the contributor and the contribution with dignity is vital. People are more likely to trust colleagues who graciously regard what they do as a distinct part of who they are. Here’s how to do that.

Create opportunities for others to shine. Look for ways to allow others to showcase their talent. For example, invite people who don’t have high visibility to present their critical projects to wider audiences in your organization. Or encourage those who host meetings you attend to hear a pitch from someone you know has a great idea but is struggling to get it heard. Maybe you can connect someone you know with career aspirations to people within your organizational network who might be able to help them advance their dream. Become known as someone who dignifies the contributions of others by making sure they’re seen and celebrated across the organization.

Be a safe place to fail. Fewer moments call for dignity more than when someone’s efforts fall short. People inherently trust others they feel no need to hide from, especially in the shame of failure. When others make mistakes, even substantial ones, make sure that accountability includes keeping their self-respect intact. Balance expressing your disappointment with making sure you remain an ally, doing whatever you can to help them get back on track.

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