Servant Leaders Build Trust

Handshake at a table while doing work

The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the key professional and personal competency of our time. —Stephen M.R. Covey

Building trust is one of the most difficult behaviors required of a leader today. We live in a society that doesn’t have a high level of trust, even though we talk about how we value trust, how important it is in our lives or how it is one of our core values. Like many of you, my route from home to work requires me to drive on the freeway. When we get on the freeway, most of the people sharing the road with us are strangers, and yet amazingly, we extend trust to most of them—trusting them to stay in their lanes, to signal before changing lanes, and to drive safely. The average size of vehicles today ranges from 3,000 to 6,000 pounds, and in California, they are driven on average at 70 miles per hour.

We trust the strangers driving these vehicles to follow the traffic laws. However, when we arrive at work, we find it difficult to trust those with whom we spend most of our awake time. In our organization, we take a trust survey every six months. We ask two simple questions of those who follow us:

  • Do you trust your boss? Yes or no,
  • Do you trust management? Yes or No.

The result is a metric we call our trust index. The index reflects the percentage of employees that answered yes to each of the questions. After interviewing many people in various companies, Stephen M.R. Covey discovered the question, “Do you trust your
boss?” is one of the most accurate indicators of the health of a company.

When trust is broken, you need to invest time convincing the other person you can be trusted again. Invest is the operative word. You cannot talk your way out of a situation your behavior has gotten you into. Convincing the other person, you can be trusted again is accomplished through your behaviors. In my servant leadership journey over the past 10 years, I learned I need to trust myself before I can trust others or expect them to trust me. There are also counterfeit behaviors of trust. I recommend you read The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey over the next 30 days. It is one of the best sources and tools to help you build trust as a leader. We have had Stephen with us at several conferences, and he has worked directly with our management team on a number of occasions.

In 2016, all the leaders in our companies, including myself, worked on three trust cards focusing on the behaviors we need to improve. (Read Stephen’s book to find out more about trust cards.) One thing that’s great about Stephen is he provides examples of what he calls “counterfeit behaviors,” those that don’t build trust in relationships. For example, there are three ways to communicate trust—or lack of trust—with others: verbal, non-verbal or just being silent. Since most communication is done through non-verbal signs, it’s good to have someone you trust help you determine the non-verbal signs that are undermining your work in building trust with others.

One of my staff recently helped me understand that I have a “look” (it’s a pretty serious frown) when I get frustrated with others. She is helping me understand when that “look” comes out so I can manage it. For others, it might be their tone of voice, and for some, their silence might leave others with the impression of distrust.

As a leader, you need to build trust or others will not follow you. Trusting yourself first and then extending trust to others will give you the right to expect others to trust you. Remember, you can’t talk your way out of a situation your behavior got you into. Building trust in others is critical to your long-term influence as a leader.

Visualization Exercise on Building Trust

My visualization for building trust is a school bus. After I leave home in the morning, I pass the bus stop for an elementary school. We have worked with a local school district to improve trust in their organization. In elementary school, the students’ trust level started out okay; in middle school, they experienced a decline in trust; in high school, the trust was even lower. We are raising a generation that doesn’t trust the world around them. The school bus I see every day reminds me to build trust with others in my life.

Close your eyes and picture what building trust looks like to you. This will be the picture that will represent building trust for you. Make sure it is a picture of something you do or see every day. Now write it down and look at it every day for the next month. Your behavior is the key to building trust with others – get started today!


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