The Advancing Leadership Blog

Trust – A Leadership Cornerstone

Blog by TEC Chair Greg Hadubiak

Most of us in leadership positions expect or need to have confidence in the abilities of those that work with or for us. We want to trust that our subordinates have the skills and abilities to perform their duties capably if not at an exceptional level. Even more importantly we endeavor to be assured that our team members are committed to our shared objectives, will in fact put forward their best efforts, and will communicate with us honestly about their achievements and challenges. There are a whole lot of assumptions built into this little vignette – that we have properly defined the jobs we have hired peopled into, that our expectations are clear, that our hiring process are robust enough to pick the best candidates, etc. – but fundamentally, we believe that once we have hired on a subordinate that they can be trusted to perform.

But how does your leadership build – or destroy – that expectation of trust on your team? I suggest that the performance you are getting and the trust that exists within a team is largely based on the example you set and the environment you create as a leader.

Patrick Lencioni identifies trust or the lack of trust as the fundamental building block of team performance – good or bad. He suggests that truly great teams have a high level of trust that allows them to be comfortable with one another, to be able to admit their individual weaknesses and mistakes, to be able to confront without fear the weaknesses of the team, and ultimately have open, unguarded communication. Without that level of trust, the team underperforms as it lacks the ability to engage in constructive conflict, lacks commitment to common goals, is unaccountable for individual or team performance, and ultimately fails to achieve results.

Lencioni’s perspective on trust is a deeper concept than most of us as leaders typically define for ourselves and our teams. Too many of us believe that commitment, accountability and results are simply the result of a transactional equation – I Pay You and You Do What I Want/Need. Failure to achieve (sometimes ill-defined expectations) means that you lose a bonus opportunity or run the risk of being fired outright. No touchy feely approach to leadership and accountability for you!

In my view, as I believe with Lencioni’s perspective and that of other leadership gurus, this basic equation of trust and accountability far too easily lets individual leaders off the hook for setting the stage for a trust-based environment and for the the level of results obtained as a result. One of the fundamental principles that Lencioni espouses in this regard is that there must be leadership by example. The leader must show the way by demonstrating vulnerability, being prepared to admit weaknesses and mistakes, and thus sets the stage for the team to do the same and creating an opportunity for honest assessment, improvement opportunities, and better performance.

“Leadership by example creates the trust you’ve been looking for and expecting all along.”

I suspect that for most of us that definitely smells too “new age” and akin to sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya. So let me give you some very specific and tangible steps to help you – as a leader – build trust within your team. First, start with setting very clear expectations for individual and team performance. Simple to say and yet almost unfailingly difficult to operationalize. Without specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited objectives and expectations most team members will be tentative in their efforts and guarded in their communications not knowing or trusting as to whether they can meet their leader’s expectations. Expectations must not only be clear for the individual team member but the leader too must explicitly define expectations for themselves that are visible to the rest of the team.

Second, there must be demonstrated commitment on the part of the leader to working towards achieving these expectations. At a basic level this is the integrity check, walking the talk, having your leadership actions match your leadership rhetoric. Too often team members are accustomed to developing a perspective on their leaders more like “Do as I say, not as I do.” Your leadership actions and words must be aligned. The leader must similarly demonstrate commitment to the achievement of team objectives through resource allocation, time management (e.g., priority setting) and recognition of results. Failure to do so is the surest way to diminish trust and attendant effort.

Third, communication must be ever present – at the beginning of the team-building and expectation setting process, as progress is made towards goals, as barriers to success are encountered, as environmental circumstances change and as success is achieved. This is not about micro-managing. Rather, this is about maintaining two-way, open communication, ensuring clarification of expectations, supporting efforts as required, encouraging, and redirecting as necessary. Communication in this regard can be compared to the feedback we get from our car’s dashboard – speed, distance, fluid levels, warning lights – all of which give us confidence as to appropriate progress towards our final destination.

Finally, building trust with the leader and within the team is also being clear about consequences related to both good and bad performance. This closes the loop on expectation setting discussed earlier. Ultimately the leader is the enforcer, referee, and ultimate arbiter on performance standards. If, as a leader, you fail to appropriately award or discipline team members – and self – based on results or adherence to agreed-upon team norms then the trust that you might have worked so hard to establish can be erased in an instance. The standard of performance you pass by is the standard of performance that you accept. The consequences and the standards of performance become the pre-established and transparent benchmarks against which decisions are made. There is no “nice” or “mean” about it. It just is. This helps support consistency and supports decision-making on the part of the leader.

One last piece of advice in this regard. Creating an environment of trust is not a one-off event. If you haven’t already come to this conclusion from the discourse above let me emphasize that the effort you make in creating a trust-based (and high-performing) environment requires steady effort and energy. It’s very much like building up your personal line of credit with your financial institution. Small steps every day that can be negatively impacted with one default, large or small. If you’ve built up a decent level of trust and admit to your mistakes and weaknesses you are certainly more likely to whether any small or short-term setback.

Leadership by example creates the trust you’ve been looking for and expecting all along.

Greg Hadubiak is a TEC Chair based in Edmonton, who is passionate about supporting and developing great leaders. To his role at TEC, he brings 25+ years of senior leadership experience, a commitment to life-long learning, and a passion for his member’s success.

Follow Greg on Twitter @P51Spitfire

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