I sometimes hear leaders claim the people don’t trust them. At times, they don’t even have a good handle on the amount of trust that exists. I’ve had leaders tell me they don’t trust their people.

So, who is responsible for trust on a team? Is trust the responsibility of the leaders? How does trust even happen?

Learning to trust

In a past life, I worked as a Project Manager in the IT department of a large financial organization. This seems like a lifetime ago, but it is an essential part of my history.

As with many Project Management environments, there is a great deal of focus on planning, tracking and status reporting. For many companies, project management has become synonymous with control, compliance and governance.

When companies develop an over-reliance on controls and compliance they remove the need for trust. When this happens people are more likely to lay blame and justify than confront a problem. This is human nature we’re talking about as it’s in our wiring.

In the financial company I worked for, the CIO had some simple rules around status reporting. You were required to come to the steering committee when you were the same status colour for more than 3 weeks.

On the surface this policy might feel like a lack of trust. In some cases this might be a lack of trust, but with this CIO it was a brilliant leadership move to foster higher trust.

At the time, we were in a stressful and risky environment. We were working on integrating the systems of two large companies (one bought the other). What is the likelihood of not bumping into significant issues or risks?

It can leave a leader feeling vulnerable to report their project is struggling. To hide the problems would mean denying more senior leaders the opportunity to help. The CIO’s philosophy was that he wanted everyone to feel supported.

For this CIO, having you come to the steering committee meant the committee could normalize the vulnerability you were feeling. I went a couple of times when things were going good, and it was a great experience. In at least one case, the steering group supported me by helping me to see a blind spot.

Through this policy, the senior leadership fostered a culture of trust. People felt confident reporting their status regardless of the news they were delivering.

When you have an environment where trust is high issues will be brought to the surface factually and quickly. By investing in creating a high trust environment the job of senior leadership was simplified. Knowing about problems earlier gave leaders the opportunity to dive in and help the team while it was easier to correct a problem.

As a result, we completed a very challenging program on time. I believe high trust was the biggest reasons for success on this program.

What is trust

There are lots of ideas what it means to trust. Too often, trust has come to mean, “I can trust that you’re going to do (or not do) something.”

To be able to trust means I can allow myself to be vulnerable. I can be vulnerable no matter what the story. I can just put it on the table, knowing regardless of how difficult something is we will work through the problems. Trusting in this way is enabled by my ability to trust my ability to respond to whatever happens.

When people can be vulnerable about something, it means wasting less time with excuses and workarounds. Instead, we’re confronting the truth no matter what it might be. When we do can get to the truth quicker we will quickly learn from the experience and grow as a result.

To avoid vulnerability means people are more likely to deny, blame or provide some other story. While these stories might relieve some anxiety at the moment, they will not resolve the problem.

A word about vulnerability

I feel compelled to add a note about vulnerability here.

As I re-read the above, it almost sounds like I’m saying to have trust you need to open the kimono and tell. To be vulnerable about everything in your life.

Vulnerability has boundaries. Without boundaries, vulnerability is not vulnerability and becomes the problem. If you want to learn more about vulnerability and boundaries, check out Dare to Lead — Brene Brown

To have trust does not mean I need to tell all about my life. In my story, trust and vulnerability mean being open about what’s happening on my project and how I feel about it.

I’m feeling a little stressed because of the struggles on my project. I’m feeling nervous about our ability to deliver X by Y. I’m feeling good despite the problems which keep showing up.

Trust in leadership

As a leader, what impact are you having on trust?

Trust is difficult to describe and impossible to measure. Trust is a feeling or an internal knowing. You grow trust slowly based on your commitment to do the right thing every day. You can destroy trust instantly with one wrong move or mistake.

Building trust is like having good teeth. You don’t have good teeth because you saw the dentist this year. You have good teeth because of your commitment to the mundane act of brushing your teeth every day.

I sometimes hear leaders saying how people should trust them because of their position. That’s not how trust works. You might get a little positional trust extended to you when a new person starts. However, your day to day actions will either grow or destroy trust from there.

Trust starts with you. When I hear someone feels they cannot trust others, it is almost always about their ability to trust themselves.

The reality is in life, the people around you are going to do things you don’t agree with. You cannot control what others do. You can only choose how you respond to what happens around you.

Given this, do you trust your ability to respond effectively and appropriately?

I have been working on mastering my leadership in the world. It’s a journey, rather than a destination. As I get more conscious about my leadership, I have become aware of the impact my on those around me.

There are lots of things contributing to my awareness. The Responsibility ProcessTM, understanding my personality better, awareness of the saboteurs in my life, and more. Certainly, the leadership and coaching work I’ve done has amplified this awareness.

Everyone has a role to play in trust. However, people’s ability to trust will be proportional to the trust fostered by their leaders.

For leaders wanting to build trust, start by looking for trust in yourself. Then never stop looking for more. You might just become the leader everyone wants to follow.

Better yet, you might just become the leader you want to follow.