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Challenging Traditional Leadership: The Power of Leading with Trust

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a leader about trust.

In essence, this individual believed that trust had to be earned from their employees, it was not something they felt their employees should automatically have from them.

It was so philosophically different from how I have always led my teams that it gave me pause.

This belief is part of older leadership style philosophies, similar to command and control, and in a world where such traditional leadership models have long championed the idea that trust must be earned, we dare to challenge the status quo.

It's high time for leaders to shed the armor of skepticism and, instead, don the mantle of trust from the very outset.

While skeptics argue that trust should only be granted after meticulous scrutiny and proven performance, we assert that the path to greatness lies in a radical departure from this dated approach.

In this provocative exploration, we dive deep into the idea that leaders need to start from a place of unwavering trust in their direct reports, fostering a culture where trust isn't a reward but the foundation upon which extraordinary accomplishments are built. Brace yourselves for a paradigm shift that may ruffle some feathers but promises to redefine the very essence of leadership.

The Case for Leading with Trust

Picture this, you are a brand new hire into a company. You bring with you many years of experience, throughout the interview process you demonstrated capabilities and skills that are needed for the role, and you have stellar references from multiple people. During your orientation, it is made very clear that in order to succeed, you must win everyone’s trust including your managers. You were given the position because those that interviewed you believed you were the best person for the job, that they trusted you could do it.

Yet now it feels like there is an assumption that maybe you are not, you have to earn that trust. What could have been a great start in a new role has left you questioning your capabilities and if this is even the right place for you. Not a great new hire experience!

If you type into any search engine, leadership + trust, you will receive a host of articles and studies, many that reference Simon Sinek and his work exploring the topic. Simon has spent years researching and exploring leadership and trust in some of the most intense team environments, especially with his work with the Navy Seals.

“The reason we call someone leader is because they choose to go first.

They choose to extend trust first, even before maybe any signs have been offered that they should. It's the willingness to express empathy before anyone else.”

– Simon Sinek.

To take it a step further, there is a level of vulnerability and openness that a leader must show in order to earn the trust of their team.

By choosing to go first, to extend trust first, they are opening themselves up in a way that shows their teams that this is a safe space, that we can all be open and trust each other, which results in a better team overall. Fostering an environment of trust can lead to big rewards for a company.

But don’t just take our word, or Simon’s for that matter.

A study published in Harvard Business Review titled “The Neuroscience of Trust” found that in high trust companies, employees “enjoyed their jobs 60% more, were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose, and felt 66% closer to their colleagues.” When employees feel more engaged and connected to their company and their peers, retention rises and productivity increases. That is a win-win situation all around.

So how do you build it?

There is no set formula for building trust, no checklist of “10 Things you Must Do To Build Trust”.

However, according to Stephen Covey, trust can be learned. He believes that trust starts within us, and it ripples out from there. When we lead with trust, when we trust others, our ability to collaborate and partner goes up, resulting in higher performing teams and organizations.

As leaders, when we start from a place of trust, when we put the needs of our teams first and are willing to sacrifice in order to create a psychologically safe environment for our employees, we create an environment where we earn their trust. When employees feel psychologically safe at work, they do not need to work and live in fear for their jobs and are free to be more creative and collaborative.

While there is no formal checklist, there are behaviors that a leader can demonstrate to create that safe environment, which leads to building mutual trust with their employees.

Some include taking time to explain the “why” behind decisions, ensuring consistency between words and actions, and being candid and honest with feedback.

In all aspects of work and life, trust is a barometer of wellbeing. As Covey says, “If people can trust each other, it’s like a multiplier effect for everything else that they’re doing.” He continues, “Their ability to collaborate goes up, to partner goes up, to create great high-performing teams goes up when there’s trust. Their ability to attract people, to retain people, to engage people goes up when there’s trust. Their ability to execute their strategy with speed goes up when there’s trust. Their ability to innovate, to value differences and diversity, goes up when there’s trust.”

When a leader takes the time to be vulnerable and leads from a place of trust, the impact can be monumental for the team, the company and themselves.

About the Author

Laura Woolford

Laura Woolford

Fractional Chief People Officer

Laura Woolford boasts a transformative career shaping HR landscapes at GoDaddy, Tesla, and GE. With expertise in Leadership Development, Coaching, and Organizational Effectiveness, she guides teams to uncover purpose, fueling fulfillment and performance.

Laura's strategic finesse translates business visions into tangible people strategies, fostering diverse, skilled teams. Rooted in empathy, she empowers leaders and employees alike, propelling careers and business triumphs.

Read Laura’s bio here.

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