As leaders move up the Leadership Pipeline, building trust becomes seemingly more complicated. Or is it?
New environments are exciting and scary.
At some point in your career, you would have moved up or out to lead a new team, a new unit, or head a new business.
Regardless of what got you here, you are now captain to a new crew, and navigating the uncertainty between you and your team is as mysterious as the deep blue sea.
What’s this team like? How are they on the job? Who can I trust?
These are just some possible questions you might have.
But, a better question to ask would be, “What can I do to start building trust?”
Components of Building Trust
Imagine you’re on a luxurious cruise to an Insta-worthy remote island in the middle of the ocean. It was a leap of faith to get on the ship, since you can’t swim, in this fictional scenario.
Onboard is an Olympic Multi-Gold-Medalist swimmer on vacation, whom you noticed because he bragged about his gold medals while boarding.
Also with you is your BFF since primary school. That one friend who was always there when you needed good company The one who you grew up doing crazy stuff with but also kept you out of trouble. That friend who would go the extra mile to help in anything except…swimming (because one of the reasons both of you are such good friends is because you BOTH almost drowned once during a mischievous adventure).
Now here comes the drama. All of a sudden, sirens blare and there are announcements that the ship is on fire! Chaos ensues and everyone scrambles for life-jackets and escape rafts.
All the equipment nearest to you have been taken, leaving behind you, your BFF, and that selfish Olympic swimmer. The flames are growing bigger. You need to jump overboard. You take a deep breath and go for it. Down into the water you go, despite knowing you can’t swim.
Now, who will you expect to save you in this situation? Your ever-reliable BFF (up till now) who also can’t swim? Or that gold-medalist (who is still pushing people out of the way to get to safety)? Tough question especially when you are “struggling to stay afloat”.
This simple scenario is meant to highlight two key components that build trust. On one hand, when someone proves that they can do something very well, most often people would trust them with that thing they can do very well. In this case, you could trust an Olympic gold-medalist swimmer to be good at, well, swimming.
We call this competency.
On the other hand, when someone exhibits desirable behaviours that appeal to you, i.e.: being nice to you, helping you when you need it, is loyal, sincere, honest, reliable, and other actions that seem positive to you, it’s easier for you trust them.
We call this character.
Tip #1: Demonstrate competency
When it comes to building trust, a pre-requisite to that is being able to do the job. People need to know that you can do what is asked of you.
Communicating to the team through conversations about your track record or demonstrations that you have done or can do the task will help others build acknowledgement towards you as a competent team member.
As a leader, your subordinates will expect you to step into the role knowing what to do and how to do it. One of the many reasons new managers struggle is because they may have been good at a previous role, but not yet for the new role. Hence, much effort needs to be put in to get up-to-speed on what the new role requires, how the team works, and what is expected.
A leader that knows mostly how things work in his/her team will be deemed as competent in their role. However, seeing you as competent does not mean the team trusts you yet.
They may respect you, but they may come to you only for technical input.
Tip #2: Exhibit the right character
Think about a colleague you really like, someone you can see as a friend at work. What is it about them that you like? More often than not, it’s because they made you feel good in a certain way.
They may be that fun-loving guy who is always cracking a joke to boost energy, or that person whom you don’t talk to much but always shares food with the team, or maybe even that one person who stayed back late one day to help you out with something.
Despite not knowing them very well, these actions and behaviours made it easier for you to like them. We often reward gestures that appeal to us/benefit us with appreciation and we are at ease with people who do these.
We call these people likeable.
However, being likeable does not mean they can get the job done. We all know a person or two who we enjoy having around but would not rely on them to solve a challenging task. It can get frustrating when you have likeable people in the team who can’t get the job done well.
The same thing goes for a leader. You may be charming, exhibit charisma, friendly to all, and know the right things to do to boost team morale, but if all you are as a leader is being likeable, your team may look to you as a feel-good factor, but they may not trust you to lead them and get the results required.
Tip #3: Building Trust Requires Vulnerability
“I’ve got the competencies and a pleasant character. They should trust me, right?”.
Yes and no. Yes because you may know you have what it takes for others to trust you. No because they don’t know they can trust you yet.
The only way they can find out if they can trust you is if you show that you trust them first. This can be done by empowering them to make decisions on the work they are capable of doing.
This can be done by getting valuing their thoughts and opinions. This can be done by encouraging them to take on initiatives but assuring them that they have your support.
There are two leadership behaviours that happen when you proactively show that you trust your team first.
ONE: you lead by example. You demonstrate the desired behaviour for the rest to follow. When they see you trust them, it sends a signal of how you want things to be and thus encourages them to do the same.
TWO: you show that you are open to making mistakes. Trusting others puts you in a position of vulnerability. This is because the receiver of your trust can choose to betray your trust by not delivering what is expected, or they can disappoint your trust by failing to do what is needed.
Either way, trusting others always carries a risk of mistake.
If you can demonstrate competency, exhibit the right character, and display vulnerability, building trust in your team becomes much easier because most people try to do their best to reciprocate trust.
And with that trust, you will be able to steer and lead any ship in calm or choppy seas.