Every leader has to have it to thrive, and here’s how you can earn more of it.

Do you remember getting your first paycheck? I mean real paycheck – when you’re making a decent hourly wage and working a lot of hours.

I worked for an auto electric store throughout high school and college. Hours varied, but on average I probably worked fifteen hours a week. That meant enough money for gas, insurance and a little fun, but not a whole lot more to spend on luxuries.

I still remember the first time I worked forty hours.

It was summer break and every Friday was payday at this job (why don’t we do that more?). I went from working fifteen hours to forty hours, and when I opened up that next paycheck I felt like Warren Buffet.

What do people do with all this money?!? I’m rich!”

Was I a little naive? Maybe.

But do you remember getting your first real paycheck?

I’m willing to bet you experienced the same exact thing.

Making paper

It takes hard work to make money, so once we start making more of it we really appreciate it. On top of the work required, we all know how important money is for our lives.

Without money, you can’t eat. You can’t pay rent. You can’t care for your family.

Because of these two things — the difficulty in obtaining it and its relative importance — money is something we place significant value on. This drives us to do things like:

  • Consider how to obtain more of it
  • Put in the hard, sometimes tedious, work needed to earn it
  • Budget it the best we can
  • Consider the best way to get a return on our investments

We do all of this because we value money.

If you’re a leader, I’m here to argue that trust is the currency of leadership.

If you need money to live well, you need trust to lead well.  *Tweet This*

The value of trust

Why is trust so important to leadership?

First, like money, we all know from personal experience that trust is a hard thing to earn.

“It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” —Warren Buffet

Because of our past experience in this messy world, most of us don’t start off from a position of trust. Trust has to be built. It’s got to be earned over time.

Trust takes work.

On top of that, just like money, trust is incredibly valuable. This might be more true now than ever before, as studies have shown that trust is becoming scarce in our society.

  • High levels of trust make your team far more likely to enjoy their jobs and stick around
  • Trust increases happiness for everyone
  • Trust improves individual and overall performance

If these things are all true, why don’t we give earning trust at least as much of our attention as we give earning money?

The problem

There’s one big reason why. If your team struggles to trust each other, it’s almost certainly because you’re making this fatal mistake.

It’s particularly easy to slip into when you’re new to leadership, but if left uncontested it could easily persist throughout your entire career:

The problem is that you assume trust will come naturally.

It’s an easy assumption to make. When you start a new job or become part of a new team trust just seems to magically happen, right? It’s a byproduct of being in the trenches together.

True. But that’s exactly why it’s so dangerous.

The most subtle lies are half-truths, and this one’s a real doozy.

When you’re just “one of the team”, trust may happen organically.

When you become a leader, the entire game changes.

As a leader, you’re responsible for the welfare of your people. You hold their careers — their futures — in your hands. This reality completely changes the dynamic between you and your people.

The game-changing question

If trust doesn’t happen naturally then the question is this: How can you create and cultivate trust?

I’ve been a part of organizations where the employees would only trust the leader as far as they could throw him (and believe me, they would have loved the chance to try). 

I’ve also been part of organizations where the team would have done anything in their power to help the leader out. Work late? Skip lunch? Reinvent the wheel? Whatever you need — because of our mutual trust and concern for one another.

If you want to be a leader who inspires the latter, you’re now at a crossroads. What are you going to do differently? Below are five key actions you can begin taking today to cultivate trust:

Trust Crossroads

Photo by Lachlan Donald on Unsplash

Put in the time

Trust springs out of relationship, and relationships take time.

A friend of mine puts it this way:

“If you want quality time, you’ve got to start with quantity time.”

If you desire trusting relationships with the people you lead, it’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve all had bad bosses and been burned in the past. Hopefully you’re not that bad boss (even if you are, you can change), but we all start at square one with our teams.

Make time and space to develop genuine relationships with your team. Ask open-ended questions. Get to know their hopes, fears and dreams. Listen well (put away your phone!).

Show them you actually care about them as human beings, not just as resources to managed (Jonathan Raymond and Refound have great resources on this).

Be Real

A common tendency for new leaders is to pretend that they are mistakeproof.

Nothing will undermine your credibility and your team’s trust quicker than this.

It’s humbling to walk into a conference room full of people and say, “It’s my fault. I made some bad assumptions. I didn’t account for ____ and now it’s set the project back.” 

When I was just getting started with a new leadership position in college, a mentor at the time encouraged me with this:

“Don’t be afraid to let people see the cracks in your life. That’s where you’ll be able to truly connect with them.”

If you want people to trust you, you have to open yourself up to them. You have to lead in vulnerability and transparency. You have to say things like, “I don’t know” and, “I’m sorry.

Be Consistent

Every business has a brand — and so does every leader.

Every member of your team is trying to figure out who you are (your brand) and how to predict your next move (how it’s going to affect them). Each action you take sends a message to your team.

When your actions are inconsistent, the message is, “He can’t be trusted.”

Even worse, the way this is interpreted by your team may be, “Because he can’t be trusted, I’m unsafe.”

If that’s what your team is hearing, you’ll never be able to empower them. They will never be comfortable taking risks or innovating for fear of you and how you will react. 

Another important aspect of consistent leadership is following through. If you promise something to your team, keep your promise. It’s a critical way you reinforce the message that you are trustworthy — whether you simply promised to take them out for a beer or you promised to deal with a performance issue.

Involve people in decisions that directly affect them

Everyone wants to feel like they have a stake in their own futures.

Whenever possible (and it’s probably possible more than you think if you have the courage), involve your team in decisions that will directly affect them:

  • Getting new office furniture? Let them vote on what they like best.
  • Dealing with a poor performer? Don’t just dictate your expectations for their improvement. Ask them what they think success looks like. Come to an agreement on what needs to change and when that change needs to happen by.
  • Starting a new initiative? Don’t assume that your perspective is accurate. More often than not, your team probably knows better than you do. Get them engaged in the decision-making process.

You can’t always please everyone. But you can engage them in the process and, even if you can’t accommodate their opinions, you can help them understand why, helping to cultivate increased trust in your relationship.

Have their backs

Ever watched The West Wing? If you haven’t, you should.

In Season 4, there’s an episode where Sam (a senior speechwriter) has to cover for a colleague (Josh) who is stuck out of town. Sam’s now responsible to “staff the president” for the day, meaning it’s his job to advise the president and help to bring context to each meeting. He’s totally out of his element.

Partially through the day, Sam calls Josh:

Yeah. Let me ask you something. He was saying that Commerce didn't have enough input on the stump speech and I started to say that it was my fault and the President kind of ran me over.

Yeah, he doesn't like the appearance that his staff is covering for him.

It genuinely wasn't his fault.

Nothing's not his fault in the Oval Office.

Want to inspire trust in your people? Lead like that.

If you’re the leader, it’s your fault when something goes wrong. You’ve got to take the hit for your team, regardless of what happened. If someone made a mistake, they will learn from it and they will love you for not throwing them under the bus.

Put your reputation on the line, not your team members.

And remember: when things go well, your team gets the credit, not you.

Call to Action

Don’t believe the lie that trust will happen naturally. Begin practicing each of these things today to build credibility and trust as a leader.

Want to improve as a leader even more? 

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