Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Trust. It is an integral part of our relationships with others. From infancy where we have ultimate trust in our parents as they provide for us, to our early friendships where we learn how to interact and behave with others. Trust is also an important and fundamental part of our relationships throughout our lives, within our communities and in our workplaces. It is something that we often don't give much direct thought to, taking it for granted in many ways until something happens that causes us to question its importance in our lives.
The nature of trust
So, what exactly is trust? Brené Brown, well known researcher, author and speaker, refers to it being "earned in the smallest of moments" (www.brenebrown.com), indicating that it is not through large, symbolic gestures that we build trust in others, but through our thoughts and interactions, each and every encounter. The authors Solomon and Flores (2001) wrote that "trust is a social practice, not a set of beliefs" (p. 13), reinforcing that it is about what we do. Yet another perspective, from executive coach, consultant, and author Charles Feltman (2009,) is that trust is about "being intentional and consistent in your language and actions" (p. 5).
Trust, then, is built, or destroyed, by what we do. We must be deliberate in our actions toward building trust and reflect on those actions to assess their effectiveness. As Solomon and Flores (2001) outlined, "building trust begins with an appreciation and understanding of trust, but it also requires practice and practices. Without the practices, the appreciation and understanding come to nothing" (p. 47). As leaders this is critical, where the importance of trust for leaders within organisations is amplified by positional power. Most organisations structure reporting relationships in a way that provides the leader significant influence over those reporting directly to them creating a relationship that has the potential to either generate high trust and mutually beneficial outcomes or deep divides, where trust is absent.
Trust and leadership
Do you need to trust the organisation that you work for? Do you need to trust the leaders you work for and with? The resignation of a senior leader at Amazon brings this issue in to sharp focus. Tim Bray was a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services for five years, but he left the organisation during the COVID-19 pandemic, over what he cited in his blog was his "dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19" (www.tbray.org).
The situation he described was one of workers feeling "uninformed, unprotected, and frightened." According to Bray, after a worker who was attempting to seek improved safety conditions was fired, "brutally insensitive remarks appeared in leaked executive meeting notes." After attempts to voice his concerns via the proper channels within the organisation he felt he had no other option than to leave the organisation as staying would have been the same as "signing off on actions [he] despised."
What does this say about the leaders involved in this situation? While we can't actually know all the details of what transpired, what does it say about a leader who was willing to leave a high paying, high profile job that he claimed to love? Do his actions inspire a willingness to trust in him as someone who will follow through with actions that support his beliefs? Feltman (2009) reported that a survey he conducted revealed that we have a tendency to rate our own trustworthiness above where we would place others, and that we tend to rate our immediate supervisors as more trustworthy than the top management of a company. Although this is only one example, Tim Bray's actions seem to support why this might be the case.
Intentions versus actions
There is an often used saying, with various constructions, that describes how we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. Where trust is concerned, Tyler (2003) stated that "social trust is not based on judgements about the predictability or competence of others. Instead it is based on attributions about the motives of others" (p. 559). So, how we perceive the intentions of others, shapes how much we are likely to trust them.
In the case of frequent interactions between leaders and employees there may be the opportunity to test assumptions, but when this is not the case, the potential arises for trust to begin to erode. If the actions of a leader are open to interpretation, then there exists the possibility that others will make assumptions about their motivations. If actions do not support what leaders say, then without specific clarification about why, there can only be assumptions about motivations and, ultimately, about trustworthiness.
Research on trust in leaders, shows how the inferences that are drawn about the characteristics of leaders such as their integrity, ability and dependability affect the behaviour and responses of those they lead (Dirks et al., 2002). Thus, leaders who work on matching their actions to their intentions can enhance outcomes and improve relationships. This is elemental to their ability and dependability, but it is perhaps most tied to their integrity.
Among the definitions of integrity found in the Oxford English Dictionary is the moral sense of "soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity" (www.oed.com). For leaders to be seen as trustworthy, their perceived integrity must high. In striving for honesty and sincerity, it becomes imperative that intentions and actions are aligned and that they are examined, through feedback from others, as well as self-reflection. When leaders seek feedback and use it to adjust course or add clarification it helps to ensure such alignment.
The example of Tim Bray shows a leader who appears to be willing to act according to truth and fair dealing. Leaders need to constantly evaluate how they show up to others and to reflect on what their actions say about them to those they work with. Spending time reflecting and thinking about how actions demonstrate intentions is a critical leadership skill in building trust. As encouraged by Solomon and Flores (2001), "building trust requires talking and thinking about trust" (p. 47).
Dirks, K. T., Ferrin, D. L., & Dirks, K. T. (2002). Trust in leadership: Meta-analytic findings and implications for research and practice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 611–628. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.87.4.611
Feltman, C. (2009). The thin book of trust: An essential primer for building trust at work. Thin Book Publishing Co.
Solomon, R. C., & Flores, F. (2001). Building trust in business, politics, relationships and life. Oxford University Press.
Tyler, T. R. (2003). Trust within organisations. Personnel Review, 32(5), 556–568. https://doi.org/10.1108/00483480310488333