8 Attributes of a Trustworthy Leader


As I look back over my career, I can see that trust has been the foundation of all my relationships and critical for my leadership effectiveness. Unfortunately, I've learned this lesson the hard way. Some years ago, I was responsible for leading the development of a new product. At the time, I saw myself as capable and accomplished. I assumed that I had the trust and confidence of my team. As we began the design phase, I was surprised by the high degree of resistance that I encountered. That resistance never went away it only increased over the life of the project. Later in this article, I'll share the high cost that my organization paid as a result of my poor leadership behavior.

We have all experienced that feeling of unease, suspicion, and caution when relating to someone that we mistrust. On the other hand, when we have a high degree of confidence in someone's trustworthiness, that relationship has an abundance of goodwill and tolerance. Perhaps there is no other attribute that people, and leaders in particular, can give attention to than trust building behaviors.

Trust Defined:

Trust is the degree to which people believe in other’s abilities, motives, reliability, and integrity.

Trust moves on a continuum from untrustworthy to unconditional. Most of my relationships fall between these extremes, and as a result, I either regard others with suspicion or support.

I recall a time when I experienced two very different leaders and how trust impacted the way that I responded to them. These leaders were master craftsmen, responsible for performing work and training up the rest of us who were dependent on learning from their experience. Rowsey was approachable and available whenever I had questions or ran into difficulties on the worksite. I can't recall a time when he was too busy or self-involved to guide my development. Harley, on the other hand, was always dismissive and harsh in his interactions with others. I recall him coming off as too busy, and task-focused to be bothered by the troubles that others were experiencing. As a leader, Rowsey's impact on me was immense. I wanted to be like him. I was always looking for opportunities to collaborate with him on complicated projects. I was eager to share my mistakes and misunderstandings with him. Harley was an excellent workman, but I didn't feel comfortable around him. I avoided bringing my problems to him.

Social psychologists make a distinction between two kinds of trust - cognitive and affective. Cognitive trust is based on the confidence that you feel in someone's abilities and accomplishments. Affective trust is based on the feelings of relational closeness, understanding, and caring. The differences between cognitive and affective trust have been described as trusting with your head (cognitive) and trusting with your heart (affective).

It's clear to me that I viewed Rowsey as a trustworthy leader, and I regarded Harley with distrust. Even though they were both extremely competent and skilled, I avoided making a relational connection with Harley. I viewed Rowsey as qualified, willing to do good by me, and highly principled. I followed Rowsey with both my head and my heart. My trust in him was much deeper and more impactful.

I've learned through my experience that being in charge does not ensure that others will trust me. Being highly skilled and having substantial accomplishments is an essential foundation for trust, but not enough to ensure that others will trust me. To be seen as a trustworthy leader, I have to show that I am responsible, capable, and caring.

The Cost of Distrust

Leadership is the guiding force in directing people towards goal accomplishment. They do this by setting a clear vision, motivating, and guiding others through the work process in a way that builds morale. When leaders are perceived as untrustworthy, limiting forces are unleashed. Here are a few of the well-known impacts of leadership distrust:

  • Slows change. When leadership trust is in question, it takes longer to gain traction and buy-in. Change is slowed due to avoidance, passivity, denial, and skepticism that result from distrust.

In the case of my new product, we missed every critical milestone and delivered it with a much smaller set of features than initially planned.

  • Increases stress. Fears and concerns over job security, lack of involvement in decision making, lack of influence over how the job is getting done, excessive workloads, favoritism, and lack of support and guidance all result from distrust. The adverse effects of excessive workforce anxiety include poor business productivity, increased absenteeism, and increased accident and injury rates.

My project team suffered all of the symptoms mentioned here. The tension throughout this project was high, and productivity was low.

  • Reduces accountability. Accountability is a mindset, and it's not something that a leader can demand of others. When leaders are not building trust, they are hindering accountability. Low accountability leads to low morale, worker disengagement, and low productivity.

During the new product development project, I was always surprised by problems and issues that arose at the last minute due to a lack of accountability. There was very little personal ownership over the success of the project, and it showed up in poor follow-through.

  • Stifles communication. Without trust, there is little reason to voice opinions and ideas, and collaboration is often avoided. Distrust causes people to withhold information and only volunteer what they think leadership wants to hear.

In my situation, I failed to respond in a trustworthy manner to those who raised objections. Soon productive communication stopped, and my team gave up.

A Model of Trust

So, what does trustworthy leadership look like? Mike Hawkins in his SCOPE of Leadership Book Series gives a comprehensive description of trustworthy leadership behavior.

“Promoting Trustworthiness: Creating an unselfish environment where people trust each other, communicate openly, and do what they say.”

Mike outlines eight leadership attributes that promote trustworthiness:

  • Conscientiousness – Showing care about the quality of your work and the impact you have on others around you. When you have a high degree of conscientiousness, you are more likely to be responsive to others’ requests and follow through on your commitments.

  • Loyalty – Aligning your motives with the organization’s motives. For people to be trustworthy, their motives also have to be known. When you don’t share your thoughts, feelings, or aspirations, people become suspicious.

  • Unselfishness – Demonstrating that you care about others’ values, feelings, needs, and goals. It’s having a genuine desire to give and help others. People welcome and embrace those who are givers rather than takers.

  • Integrity – Being honest in what you say. Words are meaningless if they are not congruent with action. Integrity has two components: what you say and what you do.

  • Information – Keeping others informed. Information removes doubt and uncertainty. It answers questions, provides confidence, and furnishes security. Even bad news is often welcomed because it removes the uncertainty of not knowing.

  • Transparency – Being open and honest with others. Disclosing your thoughts, motives, and feelings enables others to appreciate and understand you. Being transparent is a characteristic that promotes the sharing of ideas, expressing of opinions, and giving of feedback.

  • Competence – Having the skills to perform your job. It is not enough to be committed to the team and have a genuine interest in helping others. You have to demonstrate competence and commitment to your craft

  • Consistency – Showing up in a stable and dependable manner. Those around you need assurance that what they expect to happen will generally happen. To the extent that the pace of change

Building Trust with Intention

To trust someone is to believe that he or she is considerate of you. As a leader, it's not enough to think the best about others. You have to communicate in ways that demonstrate that you are worthy of their trust. So, how well do you communicate trustworthiness? Do others perceive you as embodying the eight trustworthy attributes listed above? Chances are pretty high that you are better at promoting some of these attributes than others.

Here is an exercise to give you more insight into creating a plan of action for building trust.

1. Use the following self-assessment to evaluate your trustworthiness.

Consider how others perceive your trustworthiness based on your regular everyday interactions with them. With this in mind, identify two attributes that are strengths and two attributes that are weaknesses.

2. Take a few minutes and reflect on these questions:

  • Why are you comfortable demonstrating the attributes that you identified as strong? If they come easy or naturally for you why is that?

  • Why are you uncomfortable demonstrating the attributes that you identified as weak? If they are difficult for you why is that?

3. Consider how you would need to change your thoughts or beliefs in order to turn your weaknesses into strengths. Journal your thoughts.

4. Brainstorm upcoming opportunities to demonstrate more trustworthiness. Make a list of between 8-12 opportunities that will take place over the next week.

5. Select 3 of the most natural opportunities and determine what actions you will take to build trust.

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