5 Not-Quite-Rocket-Science Ways to Build Leadership Trust

by  Jane Perdue  |  Leadership Development

This statistic stopped me cold: 60% of the participants in a 2009 international study trusted a stranger more than they trusted their boss. Yikes, how sad.

In doing a quick mental tally of bosses I’ve had, unfortunately this figure didn’t seem too far off my experience. Many of those bosses didn’t grasp that in times of rapid change and uncertainty (which is the new normal for business) people turn to relationships and those whom they trust.

“The truth is that trust rules,” writes Pamela S. Shockley-Zalabak in Building High-trust Organizations. “Trust rules your personal credibility. Trust rules your ability to get things done. Trust rules your team’s cohesiveness. Trust rules your organization’s innovativeness and performance. Trust rules your brand image. Trust rules just about everything you do.”

The handful of bosses from my past who “got it” about building personal trust had mastered these five elements:

Being a transparent communicator. They came, they listened and they spoke without hidden agendas or ulterior motives. They avoided making bite-you-in-the-butt-later remarks like “This is the last time we’ll have layoffs” or “This is the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

Practicing consistent consistency. There were no say-do gaps because they did what they said they were going to do. And they didn’t hesitate to be tactful in advising their team members of their shortcomings. Problems weren’t glossed over and/or ignored; they were resolved.

Defining clear roles, responsibilities and expectations. They made it clear what they expected you to do and how they generally wanted it done. You knew ahead of time how your performance would be measured. And they trusted you to take care of your job.

Applying equal consideration. These men and women lived out fairness and justice in how they allocated outcomes, dealt with processes and handled interpersonal treatment. There were no favorites or overblown platitudes like “This is the best work I’ve ever seen” or “You’re just the greatest.”

Being a character role model. Research tells us that perceptions of a leader’s characteristics, things like integrity, credibility and fairness, shape how employees will behave in the workplace. “…individuals who feel that their leader has, or will, demonstrate care and consideration will reciprocate this sentiment in the form of desired behaviors,” writes professor K.T. Dirks. Authentically walking the talk is important.

Is building, maintaining and restoring/repair trust high on your 2012 leadership to do list?

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About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
Jane is a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. She loves chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Peter Borner  |  10 Jan 2012  |  Reply


I agree… honesty and transparency lead to trust… gain the trust of your employees and you gain the trust of your customers. It reminds me of Rotary’s 4-Way test…

“Of the things we think, say or do:
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”

If only everyone lived by this rule!


Jane Perdue  |  10 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Hi, Peter —

Thanks for sharing the Rotary 4-Way test! It could be a great tool for everyday use, regardless of belonging to the Rotary or not. How can one go wrong by telling the truth, serving the greater good and thinking more about me and less about me?!


Randy Conley  |  10 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Excellent thoughts Jane. All those behaviors you listed are key to building and sustaining trust in relationships. I’m a proponent of the ABCD TrustWorks! Model to help leaders understand a basic framework for building trust. Leaders build trust by being Able (good at what you do, knowledgeable, expertise, performance results), Believable (honest, integrity, values-based, walk the talk), Connected (show care and concern, build rapport, good communication skills) and Dependable (being reliable, following through on commitments, organized).

Once people understand that trust is built (or eroded) through specific behaviors, the concept of trust becomes much more tangible rather than something that “just happens” in relationships.

Best regards,


Jane Perdue  |  10 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Hi, Randy –

Thanks for stopping by and sharing! Ken Blanchard has created some gems throughout is career, and the ABCD Trustworks! is one of them. Helping leaders internalize these practices, as you suggest, is foundational for building trust.


John Bernard  |  10 Jan 2012  |  Reply


Well, no one said common sense was common.

We’ve all made mistakes and done dumb things, but it is rare the boss who will sit us down and just tell us the honest truth. That’s one of many reasons my only boss any more is my customer. Customers are far more rationale than bosses.

Love you writings.


Jane Perdue  |  11 Jan 2012  |  Reply

John –

Thanks for starting my day with chuckle, one prompted by your wry yet true observation about common sense.

Being an effective character-based leader takes hard work and dedication. As you so accurately point out, not all leaders are willing to make that kind of investment in themselves and in others. Too bad.

So appreciate your kind words about the writing.

With a smile,


Dominique O'Rourke  |  11 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Hello Jane,
In inter-organizational trust research, tangible investments like training, product specialization, special systems, special pos displays, etc. have consistently been shown to build trust because they signal a long-term commitment and an investment in the other (i.e., a sign of benevolence). This can apply within an organization too so beyond being credible, fair, signalling benevolent intentions (so important), investing in others pays off when it comes to trust.

Jane Perdue  |  11 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Dominique –

You hit the nail on the head in using the word “investment” – great point! Investing – be it time, development, attention, materials, etc. – is something one chooses to do. It’s that conscious decision to do right while doing well that differentiates trusted and effective leaders from the rest of the pack. Thanks for enriching the discussion!


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