I recently received an urgent phone call from a leader at a medium-size pharmaceutical company. He wasted no time. The leader blurted out, “Matt, I am starting to believe we placed too big of an emphasis on performance and a business as usual mentality during the pandemic. We have been productive and efficient, but I feel like there is a huge gap between the leadership team and the rest of the organization when it comes to trust and understanding.”

Unfortunately, this specific example isn’t out of the ordinary for most leaders right now. With the shift to work from home, living through a global pandemic, trying to maneuver around the complications of being a good parent with children at home while also attending to work related priorities simultaneously, the strain and stress of employees has skyrocketed. Not to mention, with most restrictions being lifted and workers starting to come back to the office, leaders face a new challenge.

One of the most overlooked and underrated leadership skills in my opinion is the ability to strengthen and drive trust throughout an organization.

There have been some inspirational examples of companies being able to capitalize on the pandemic and use it to strengthen trust throughout the organization, but for the most part, it’s a glaring weakness hindering the potential for many other organizations.

Trust in the workplace is no different than trust outside of the workplace. It has to be the foundational pillar of how a team, organization, or school is built just like it is for a marriage or friendship. A common theme that I have seen over the past year and a half is a pretty substantial trust gap between senior leadership teams and the rest of the organization, which is what prompted me to share the above example. This void between leaders and the rest of the organization is usually filled with inconsistency, confusion, and burnout. Most leaders have good intentions, but they tend to forget that good intentions don’t win the hearts and minds of employees. Only intentional actions can do that, repeated over and over, day in and day out.

To start the process of strengthening the trust of your team and organization, here are three ideas to focus on moving forward.

1. Practice Vulnerability 

Being vulnerable is not an easy task. I put it as number one for a reason. As Patrick Lencioni describes in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the absence of trust is a silent killer and the first dysfunction of all team environments. Lencioni says, “Trust lies at the heart of a great team, and a leader must set the stage for that trust by being genuinely vulnerable with his or her team members.”

If you are not vulnerable as the leader, then you are sending a message to the rest of your team that vulnerability is not tolerated. Team members will start to think that being vulnerable is a weakness and that message quickly spreads across an organization. If team members can’t be vulnerable with one another, the absence of trust will continue to linger.

What does vulnerability look like in the workplace or in a team environment? When a team member feels comfortable enough to admit their weaknesses, openly share their struggles, and ask for help without the fear of being judged.

When I say practice vulnerability, I am not referring to faking your emotions or not be your authentic self. A lot of leaders will hear vulnerability and don’t know where to start. They assume that it’s deemed as a weakness and won’t help drive results or push people to perform at a high level. What’s amusing about this is that being vulnerable does the exact opposite. It is a leadership and human superpower that drastically helps to shrink the trust gap that I mentioned earlier.

How can you start to practice vulnerability today?

  • Start to openly share your challenges and wrongdoings as a leader with the rest of the organization.
  • Have a personal story or experience that relates to a key point you are trying to drive home? Share it.
  • Perform team building exercises preferably once a month to improve connection among team members. Go first as the leader. Share personal stories such as where you grew up, what was the most memorable day of your life, and the biggest challenge you had to overcome in your life. These are simple but powerful practices. I often see tears and strong bonds formed immediately.

One leader I work with recently said to me, “I can’t believe the difference just being vulnerable has made. I regret waiting this long to be more vulnerable as a leader.”

2. Radical Transparency

It’s amazing to me how many leaders implement a new initiative, revise the performance management system, or develop a new five year strategic plan and then don’t communicate it frequently and clearly across all levels of the entire organization.

Don’t seek to just provide frequent and clear communication, but explain the reasoning behind every decision and what can be expected moving forward. A common mistake leaders make is to think that everyone knows what’s expected of them and how things will be different moving forward when change is initiated. The best leaders are almost fanatical about making sure their people don’t have to guess what’s coming next. They stay ahead of the curve constantly communicating from a place of radical transparency.

There will be plenty of decisions that leadership teams and organizations will have to make where majority of people don’t agree. I have experienced the power of radical transparency even when it comes to discussing sensitive subjects where a leader has to deliver news that no one wants to hear, but they respect and appreciate the straightforwardness displayed by the leader.

Radical transparency slowly builds trust over time.

3. Model the Desired Behavior

In order to strengthen and drive trust as a leader, you have to make sure that you are modeling the desired behavior. You most likely have a strong desire for your employees and staff to trust not only you as the leader, but also the direction of the organization. In order for that to fully take place, you have to display trust as the leader.

I will give you a perfect example of how communicating the importance of trust and working to build a culture of trust can backfire if you don’t model the desired behavior.

The senior leadership team of a large national healthcare company has been working hard for the past couple of months to reverse a poor score they received on a recent employee engagement survey. The poor score was centered all around the lack of trust between the senior leadership team and frontline managers. It was a consensus across the board. When the senior leadership team met to discuss how to address the glaring issue head on, they crafted a communication and development plan to fix the problem.

For months, they had focus groups with the frontline managers to gain a deeper understanding of the lack of trust and what they could do differently. On top of the focus groups and implementing some of the findings, they relentlessly communicated the importance of trust. They even approached the situation with vulnerability and admitted their mistakes. They also provided radical transparency on the action steps they would be taking moving forward and what the frontline managers can expect.

The one major problem with all of this is that there were key members of the senior leadership team who didn’t model the desired behavior of trust. They were talking a big game about trust but their actions didn’t follow. The senior leaders were asking the frontline managers to trust them but their daily actions clearly showed they didn’t trust the frontline managers. They were still micromanaging and overly monitoring their every move. Their actions were the exact opposite of what they have been saying. In order to create a culture of trust, you first have to give trust.

Trust is not earned as a leader. It’s given. Once it’s given, it’s often reciprocated if you consistently show up. This is much harder than it sounds, because often times you will be working hard to gain the trust of those that you lead with your actions, while at the same time placing your trust in others when they may not fully trust you yet. It is worth it though.

Don’t put off strengthening and driving trust as a leader. The decision will pay off big time.