Trust building: a key skill for leaders

Trust is a hot topic at the moment. Over the last six months, I’ve been asked more questions than ever before about how leaders can build trust or create trusting workplace cultures. Questions such as:

  • My team has complained I am a micromanager. Why?
  • I’m a relationship manager in an engineering firm. How do I get customers onside more easily?
  • My senior manager won’t listen to me. What can I do?
  • I’m a faculty manager in a university. My direct reports don’t listen to feedback. What can I do?
  • How do I get my clients to trust, accept and action my advice?

Each of these questions stems from an interpersonal or team dynamics issue, which is being impacted by low trust. Trust is the belief another person has benevolent intentions towards you. Learning to build trust means understanding some key psychological principles. Slick ‘techniques’ (such as mirroring body language or matching verbal patterns) won’t build trust if they are used incongruently. Instead, leaders need to actively shape the dynamics of trust over time. Here are three strategies for doing this.


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Boost your positivity ratio

In communication contexts, this is the ratio of positive to negative emotions another person experiences during their interactions with you. According to relationship dynamics researcher, John Gottman, the magic ratio for a flourishing relationship is 5:1. If you want your team, customers or senior manager to trust you, work on this element first.

Respond in active constructive mode

This is a way of amplifying others’ positive feelings, by reinforcing them. When you hear a conversational partner expressing an enjoyable emotion – for example, joy, excitement or pride – acknowledge it. Then ask for more information about the event or situation which has prompted the feeling. For example, “You sound really happy about that customer’s feedback. It’s wonderful she took the time to thank you in writing. What do you think you did best in your conversation with her?”

Instead of arguing, enquire

Your people won’t trust you if you invalidate their opinions. Even if you disagree, it’s important to communicate respectfully. Pause before saying “That won’t work because…” or “Yes but…” Then ask a probing question. Explore the other person’s perspective, before using influencing skills to gently challenge or redirect their thinking. This builds rapport and maintains trust – not only in relation to discussing this issue, but within the relationship overall.

Remember that trust grows over time. It will survive challenges or ‘breaches’ only if you have built positive psychological capital. This is why smart leaders see trust-building as a daily activity. Every conversation contributes to your relationship dynamics. So make every conversation count.


About the author of this article:

Eleanor Shakiba is a positive psychology trainer. She has helped over 50,000 people to build confidence, presence and impact at work. Her passion is working with the ‘positive deviants’ in organisations – equipping them to think creatively and produce exceptional results. Eleanor is the author of the Positive Psychology Toolkit for HR and L&D practitioners. She also runs a range of retreats and workshops for trainers and facilitators.