How Great Leaders Build And Maintain Trust

Bottom line, are you seen as trustworthy? And how do you talk about trust without everyone getting bent out of shape? Here are a few ideas.

Photo: Audrey Epstein, Partner at The Trispective Group; Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Audrey Epstein, Partner at The Trispective Group; Source: Courtesy Photo

Talking about trust is tough in business. When a colleague tells you, “I don’t trust you” your first instinct is probably to react defensively or aggressively. Rarely do we respond with curiosity and an openness to understand. You may take “I don’t trust you” as an attack on your character and an affront to your integrity. But trust is the foundation for strong, productive relationships, teams, and organizations so it’s imperative that if you are told you are untrustworthy you need to change that fast.

In my research assessing hundreds of teams, I found that 70% of the variance between high and low performing teams centers on the quality of relationships of the team members. Additionally, top teams are 50 times more likely to successfully build and maintain trust than their less productive cousins. It’s nearly impossible to achieve common goals, talk about the toughest challenges, or collaborate across the organization without high trust.

The challenge is that everyone sees and measures trust differently. People define trust and trustworthiness out of their own preferences and life experiences. In my mind someone is trustworthy if they are authentic, real and interested in me and my ideas. Trust is about connecting, about not being two-faced, not playing politics.

Bottom line, are you seen as trustworthy? And how do you talk about trust without everyone getting bent out of shape? Here are a few ideas:


1. “It all depends at how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.” – Carl Jung

Photo: © mavoimages, YFS Magazine

People have very different standards for judging if someone is trustworthy. For some people, it’s all about fulfilling commitments. Did you do what you said you would do? Are you accountable for your results? For others, it’s about authenticity, vulnerability, and connection. Did you show that you cared about them? Were you open and honest about who you are? Did you disclose something more personal about yourself that demonstrated trust? And yet for others, it’s about loyalty and candor. Did you stand up for me when I wasn’t around? Did you gossip about me or tell me to my face?

If you want to be seen as trustworthy by a variety of people who may all define trust differently, you have some work to do. You need to understand what trustworthy means to the important people in your life and to your key stakeholders at work. Know their expectations. Make the effort to meet their needs. You may want to ask them the following questions:

  • What let’s you know you could trust me?

  • What is the best way to gain your trust?

  • How do people lose your trust?

  • How would you define the level of trust between us?


2. “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

Photo: © Milles Studio, YFS Magazine

As much as you want to be seen as trustworthy, how hard do you make people work before they earn your trust? Some of us grant everyone trust right away, as soon as we meet them. We assume they deserve our trust until they break it. Some of us don’t trust anyone until they have earned it. But once they have, they enjoy unlimited trust with us.

Think about how you extend trust to others and ensure you aren’t making it so difficult for others to earn your trust that you are preventing relationships from forming or progressing. Don’t “secret test” people. Let them know what you expect and help them build trust with you quickly.

In business, we often don’t have the years we might enjoy in personal relationships to slowly build up trust. We have to form the team quickly. We have 3 months to complete the project. Others sense it when you are distrustful. By withholding trust, you may create a more difficult road for yourself. Don’t make others distrust you by being distrustful.

If you find it difficult to extend trust to someone you work closely with, ask yourself the following questions to see if they can help you grant trust:

  • Has this person ever given me cause NOT to trust them?

  • If they have, did I ever talk with them about my concerns?

  • Am I assuming positive intent? Do I know the full story?

  • Have I clearly expressed my expectations so there are no “secret tests?”


3. “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” – Benjamin Franklin

Photo: Charles Deluvio, Unsplash/YFS Magazine
Photo: Charles Deluvio, Unsplash/YFS Magazine

If you break trust, own it immediately. Apologize fully. Most of the time, we do not break trust with intent. We are not intending to break a commitment, share a confidence, take credit for someone else’s accomplishment. But stuff happens. When you believe you may have created distrust with someone else, confess quickly. Apologize for the impact. Ask how you can rebuild trust.


4. “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Ghandi

Photo: © LazorPhotography, YFS Magazine

Practice forgiveness. Don’t hold others to impossible, perfect standards that you wouldn’t want to be held to. Remember that their mistake may be different than one you would make, but we all transgress. Be clear with others on your needs and your expectations.

Create candor in your relationships. Tell others if you believe they have broken trust. Allow them to fix things and accept their apologies. Holding on to that wrong can really weigh you down. Being able to forgive is often more for you than the person you are forgiving and can help continue to build trust between you and your colleagues.


5. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” – Ken Blanchard

Photo: © UBER IMAGES, YFS Magazine

If someone says they don’t trust you, don’t freak out. Don’t take it so personally that your righteous indignation keeps you from finding out what is at the core of this challenge. Remember, trust is a big word with many meanings. Dig in and find out what happened.


Relationships are the foundation for strong teams, and in most organizations, work gets done on teams. You can’t build relationships if you don’t grant others trust and show yourself to be a trustworthy person. Don’t shy away from talking about trust at work.

Consciously work to build and rebuild trust with others. By starting with yourself, by being trustworthy and by extending trust, you may well be making the greatest contribution to your team that you will ever make.


Audrey Epstein is a leadership development expert, partner at The Trispective Group and the co-author of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Great Organizations. For more information or to take a free team snapshot assessment, please visit, trispectivegroup.com.


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