What is the relationship between trust and effective leadership?

How do you nurture trust in your team or organisation?

What is relational trust and how does a leader grow or diminish this in a team?

These are questions that all leaders should take into consideration in the course of their daily interactions with their team. It is trust that sets the foundation for any cohesive and successful team.

Leaders who understand how to grow and maintain trust in their team, and consciously act to take deliberate steps to grow that trust, will be more successful and enable the organisation to thrive. This post, which is based on the book ‘The Speed of Trust’ by Stephen Covey, will provide you with some practical ways to explore how your leadership builds (or limits) trust.

We have developed a useful tool which you can take a copy of that will help you with your self-review and reflection. Our goal with this is to help you grow your leadership capabilities and build better trust in your school or organisation.

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How leaders build trust

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Does your team trust you and do you know what you do that helps build trust?

Do you know what you don’t do that you start doing, in order to build trust? What have you done about it…?

It is trust that sets the foundation for any successful and effective team - do you have it? #ldrchatnz #edchat Click To Tweet

Speed of Trust BookIf you have not read it, the book ‘The Speed of Trust’ by Stephen Covey is well worth a read. It provides an excellent conceptual framework for how trust can be grown through deliberate actions and behaviours. Covey asserts:

“The ability to establish, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders – customers, business partners, investors, and coworkers – is the key leadership competency of the new, global economy.”

Of course, the context in which we work as leaders is often fluid and changes, so whether you are involved in establishing trust, rebuilding trust, or extending it will very much depend on a number of factors. These might include:

  • Being a new leader to your organisation where the staff miss the previous leader;
  • Having been through an experience that challenged people;
  • The degree to which people are authentic and communicate effectively;
  • Whether people in the organisation have positive or negative intent in terms of how they support the leadership;
  • How comfortable people are in the environment and the degree to which they are able to take on new ideas, approaches and adapt to change (or not).

In this post, I will introduce you to the 13 key elements of trust as Covey describes them, plus I will provide you with a tool to undertake some self-review of yourself and/or your team. As you consider these issues, and most importantly, your role as the leader, here are some questions to stimulate reflection and dialogue:

  1. What is trust?
  2. How do you know you have it, or not?
  3. What builds trust?
  4. What do you do that might build trust?
  5. What diminishes trust?
  6. What do you do that might diminish trust?
  7. Do you think your team trusts you? Why or why not? What are the indicators of this?
  8. What is the relationship between trust and effective leadership?

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Covey believes that effective leaders are rediscovering the importance of trust as they see it from a new perspective. The traditional perception of trust being a soft, social virtue is no longer applicable, and leaders are learning to see it as a highly relevant, and critical performance multiplier.

Bear in mind that last point of the ‘performance multiplier’ can go either way – it can be magnified as the building of trust, or magnified as the diminishment of trust. If the latter, then trust is lost more quickly than it is gained.

Below is a summary of the principles which we’ve summarised from the book ‘The Speed of Trust‘ by Stephen Covey.

Self Trust and the 4 Cores of Credibility

Your credibility as a leader is what defines you. According to Covey, credibility boils down to two simple questions. First, do I trust myself? Second, am I someone who others can trust? The first question is great because when you first take a CEO/principal role, it is the area in which you will be tested – do you believe in and trust yourself?

These four Cores are key to building your credibility as a leader:

  1. Integrity
  2. Intent
  3. Capabilities
  4. Results.

Which of these are your strengths and which are areas you might wish to develop? Once identified, how might you develop these areas?

The first two cores, integrity, and intent are about your character, or who you are as a person and as a leader. The second two, capabilities and results are competency cores. They are related to skills, capabilities and the outcomes (or results) of your work.

All Four Cores are necessary for credibility. A person of integrity that does not produce results is not credible. If you are not credible, you are not trustworthy!

Integrity (Character)

The First Core is Integrity. Most of the major violations of trust are violations of integrity. Covey believes integrity is more than just being honest. In addition to honesty, integrity is made up of three other virtues:

Congruency is to do with the degree to which you act according to your values. It is when there is no gap between what one intends to do and what one actually does. In education, we sometimes call this the difference between your espoused theory and your theory in action. The ability to self-monitor and adjust to this is critical to being a great leader.

Humility is the ability to look out for the good of others in addition to what is good for you. It is about letting go of your ego and letting others shine without expecting or wanting anything in return. This has also been called agape love, which is unconditional and doesn’t expect anything in return. Another way to consider this type of love is that it is selfless and charitable. Covey says:

“A humble person is more concerned about what is right than about being right, about acting on good ideas than about having the ideas, about embracing new truth than defending an outdated position, about building the team than exalting self, about recognizing contribution than being recognized for it.”

Courage is the ability to do the right thing even when it may be difficult. It is when you do what you know is right regardless of the possible consequences. This is sometimes referred to as your ‘moral compass’ and it is what guides you when times are tough or when making difficult decisions.

RT: Do you make decisions based on what is easiest, or what is best? #ldrchatnz Click To Tweet

Intent (Character)

The Second Core is Intent. Intent comes from our character. It is part of our value system. It is how we know how we should act and what we hold as most important. Covey breaks intent down into three areas:

1. Motive is why you do what you do. The best motive in building trust is genuinely caring about people. If you don’t care and have no desire to care, be honest and let people know you don’t care. If you don’t care but want to care, start to do caring things. Often, the feelings will follow the actions.

2. Agenda stems from our motive. The best agenda is honestly seeking what is good for others. Notice that your agenda is much more than wanting what is good for others, but seeking what is good for others.

3. Behaviour is putting your agenda into practice. It is what we do based on what we intend to do and the outcomes we actively seek. Behaviour is where the rubber meets the road and beliefs are turned into action. Behaviour is important because it is what people see and judge. Telling someone you love them is important, but showing them you love them is critical to growing the relationship.

Behaviour is where beliefs are turned into action! Click To Tweet

Covey gives three very sensible suggestions to help you monitor and improve your intent:

  1. First, examine and refine your motives
  2. Second, declare your intent
  3. Third, choose abundance.

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Capabilities (Competency)

The Third Core is Capabilities. Capabilities are “the talents, skills, knowledge, capacities, and abilities that we have that enable us to perform with excellence.” To help think about the various dimensions of capabilities, Covey uses the acronym TASKS:

T – Talents are the activities we are naturally good at and usually love to do. Covey believes that talents are more about our potential.

A – Attitude is how you see things and how you respond to situations emotionally.

S – Skills are the things we’ve learned to do well. Covey points out that is is easy to get so comfortable with our skills that we don’t explore or fulfill our talents.

K – Knowledge is what we know and continue to learn.

S – Style is your unique way of doing things. It is intimately tied to your personality. Whether you can change your style is perhaps something up for debate; you may be able to alter it, yet completely changing it – I’m not so sure.

How to Increase Your Capabilities

While these three tips might sound simple, the practice of these is more of an art form than a science.

First, follow your strengths and your passions. Second, remain relevant by continually increasing your knowledge and improving your skills. Third, know where you are going. The people you lead will follow if you know where you are going and you show this. If you don’t believe in you, they won’t either!

Results (Competency)

The Fourth Core is Results. People don’t trust people who don’t deliver results. Results are the outcomes of the activity and they are the means by which success is measured. They are what you contribute to the organisation. You can’t hide from your results.

RT: Character consists of what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is a habit. #ldrchatnz Click To Tweet

Covey also states,

“… if the results aren’t there, neither is the credibility. Neither is the trust. It’s just that simple; it’s just that harsh.”

People in your team or organisation will judge your results from three perspectives:

  1. Your past results – what has been achieved in the past?
  2. Your present results – what is being achieved now?
  3. Your future results – or rather your potential for future results.

Don't trust words, trust results

I don't trust words; I trust results. Click To Tweet

How to improve your results

There are a number of ways which you can alter your focus in order to improve your results. Taking responsibility for the results is critical to success, rather than the activities that lead to the outcomes/results. This is crucial, especially if the team doesn’t meet the desired goals for whatever reason; step back and analyse why not so you can improve next time.

Focus on the outcomes themselves, rather than the process by which you are aiming to get these outcomes. This will drive quality and enable others to see you focussing on the ‘end game’ or the ‘big picture’. Focus on expecting to achieve the goals and this will help you and your team translate them into action.

Make sure that the results are achieved. All too often with leaders I work with, I see them set wonderful aspirational goals and develop action plans, only to fail to monitor the success of the action plan. Leaders who fail to monitor and finish, diminish their credibility because the team doesn’t experience the success of the results. Monitoring is like saying ‘I believe this is important, so am prepared to support you in an ongoing way’.

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The 13 behaviours that grow trust

Building trust is like plugging a leaky bucket

Imagine a bucket full of water that has holes in it and you are trying to plug those holes. Each time you interact with someone, you are either taking your finger out of one of these holes or worse, creating another hole!

The easiest way to fill up the ‘trust bucket’ is to stop taking water out of it. Examples of these sorts of behaviours include: passing the buck, avoiding important conversations, being perceived as disrespectful, being disloyal. These sorts of behaviours damage and diminish trust and over time, the bucket empties. Knowing that different behaviours affect different people will also help you to avoid emptying the trust bucket – what is positive for one person may not be for others.

The following are 13 behaviours that will enable you to strengthen trust and ‘fill up the bucket’:

1. Talk Straight

Effective leaders state their mind in an artful way. They are tactful in how they approach different issues and are able to state their views in such a way that it is right place, right time, while being ‘appropriately assertive’. This gives the right impression and fills the bucket of trust and it creates transparency.

Being a straight talker doesn’t mean you hurt feelings and destroy relationships though; it means you build capacity and strengthen relationships through your honest, up front and ‘appropriately assertive’ manner.

2. Demonstrate Respect

Valuing your people and respecting them will fill the ‘trust bucket’. The adage of the Golden Rule applies here: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. If your actions show you care then people will notice. Respect is demonstrated in the “little” things we do each day.

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3. Create Transparency

Effective leaders create a culture of transparency. This means telling the truth in a way that can be verified. This means showing the principles of honesty, openness, integrity and authenticity. It is based on doing things in the open where all can see. There are many ways in which transparency can be grown, from improving your organisational systems, through to directly focusing on culture.


RT: A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity - Dalai Lama Click To Tweet

Dalai Lama

4. Right Wrongs

From time to time people will make mistakes, even the leader. If you fix your mistakes and own up to them you create a belief that you can be trusted to come through. To what extent do you cover up mistakes or do you take responsibility for them?

5. Show Loyalty

An effective leader will stick up for his or her team, even when times are tough. This will grow trust and ‘fill up the bucket’ quickly. Covey believes there are two main ways to show loyalty to your team. Firstly, it is to ensure you give credit to others over yourself. Acknowledging the contributions of your team, especially when this is done publicly in the right way, will grow trust. Secondly, always speak about others as if they are present.

Talking about others behind their back in a negative way is really just gossip and will diminish trust across the team. To what extent do you give credit to others? To what extent do you speak about others as if they were present?

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6. Deliver Results

The fastest way to build trust with your team is to deliver results. Results give you instant credibility and trust. Covey says that this is based on competence and it grows out of the principles of responsibility, accountability, and performance. Delivering positive results turns cynics into believers and establishes trust in new relationships. It also restores trust that has been lost due to lack of competence.

It’s interesting to note Covey’s definition of leadership: getting results in a way that inspires trust. To what extent do you get results that inspire and help people feel a sense of accomplishment?

RT: How well does your leadership deliver results that inspire trust in others? #ldrchatnz Click To Tweet

7. Constantly improve

Effective leaders are never satisfied with just the results – they seek to constantly improve them. This is similar to the Japanese concept of Kaizen – or ‘continual improvement’. Constantly evaluating the quality of the outcomes will lead to new ideas. These ideas must then be implemented so that people see the improved results. It is not enough merely to evaluate; we must improve next time and get better outcomes.

Covey suggests two ways to get better. First, seek feedback from those around you. Second, learn from your mistakes. I would suggest a third – to cross-reference your thinking and the feedback with quality research.

To what extent do you seek constant improvement? #ldrchatnz #edchatnz Click To Tweet

8. Confront Reality

This is one of the hardest tasks for new leaders to face – how to deal with difficult situations. Usually, these situations in organisations will involve other people, so the skills of developing artful conversation are critical for being an effective leader. This involves being honest and upfront about the difficult issues we face. How well does he/she face reality and deal with difficult situations as the leader?

RT: Leaders - how well do you face reality and deal with difficult situations as the leader? #ldrchatnz Click To Tweet

9. Clarify Expectations

It is important to focus on a shared vision of success from the start. If we do this then we are ‘starting with the end in mind’. If a team doesn’t have a clear goal or clear expectations for what success looks like, then the results may not be as expected and trust could diminish. One simple strategy I encourage leaders I work with is to always state their purpose, intention or the goal of a decision or meeting process, this engenders trust.

Leaders - how well do you clarify expectations with your team? Click To Tweet

Coherence Framework by Michael Fullan

10. Practice Accountability

Have you ever heard a leader you know say something that indicates they are taking personal accountability for something?

According to a 2002 Golin/Harris poll, “assuming personal responsibility and accountability” was ranked as the second highest factor in building trust. Great leaders build trust by holding themselves accountable first, then holding others accountable.

This also means you must take responsibility for any poor results, and hold people accountable for their results. To what extent to do you exercise and grow personal and organisational accountability?

This fits nicely with the ‘coherence framework‘ developed by Michael Fullan and his colleagues where he talks about the importance of securing internal and external accountability.



RT: Leaders - to what extent to do you exercise and grow personal and organisational accountability? #ldrchatnz Click To Tweet

If you would like help developing accountability in your leadership practices, please get in touch – we can help.

11. Listen First

You may have heard of Covey’s 5th habit of effective people, which is: ‘seek first to understand, then be understood’. Using an inquiring approach when discussing issues that are important to your team or clients is a useful approach for developing this.

Leaders who jump too quickly into ‘giving advice’ will often miss the point and risk diminishing trust in others. Do you listen first before speaking? Have you ever spent time doing an audit of how much you talk compared with how much you listen? Get in touch if you’d like help with this.

12. Keep Commitments

According to Covey, this behaviour has the largest impact on trust. This is because when you keep a commitment it builds hope and develops trust.

Your commitments can develop you or destroy you, but either way, they will define you.

Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

The implication of this is to be very careful with what commitments you make; when you make them, always ensure you meet or exceed them. A failed commitment is like punching a large hole in the ‘trust bucket’ and this applies not only to small commitments (eg. meetings starting or finishing on time) as well as larger commitments (meeting a deadline for assessment).

13. Extend Trust

The previous 12 behaviours are about you being trusted, whereas this one is about you being trusting. This can be difficult if you don’t know your people; however, it is important to be able to judge how much trust you can give people based on their past performance and character.

Are you a trusting leader? To what extent do you extend trust to those who have earned it?

RT: Leaders - to what extent do you extend trust to those who have earned it #ldrchatnz Click To Tweet

A self-review tool to help you analyse how trusted you are

This diagram shows the results from a Google Form which I have devised as a result of the 13 behaviours that build trust. It enables you to complete some self-review yourself or to gather some anonymous data from your team. There is a range of ways you can use this idea to help gain useful feedback to use to improve your leadership.

This first diagram shows the results from an individual graph:

Trust map by Learning Architects

This second diagram shows the results from a group review with two respondents:

Trust map by Learning Architects

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Focussing on these 13 behaviors and actively growing trust across your organisation will enable it to thrive in the modern world, create better outcomes and make a more fulfilling workplace for your team.

If you would like help identifying which elements to grow in your practice that build trust, or reviewing the ‘trust quotient’ in your organisation, please get in touch. Our range of specialist leadership supports get results.


The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey
Coherence by Michael Fullan