The role of the leader in building trust

highperformingteam leadership trust Apr 13, 2023

We know that it can take years to build trust, and moments for it to be broken. Trust is the essential building block in every organisation and team. In Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a team, trust is the foundation on which high performing teams are built. When trust is present, employees are more engaged, have higher levels of discretionary effort and have longer tenure.

It is leadership behaviour including decision making and action taken, that determines whether trust grows or crumbles. Often leaders are not even aware that a micro moment, interaction or minor decision can have very tangible impacts on trust within the team. This is why leaders have to slow down, be intentional in their decision making and be able to see the impact of their decisions on trust, culture and engagement.

In a recent Forbes article (17 Common Mistakes Leaders Make That Can Destroy Team Trust (, the following 17 mistakes are highlighted as common mistakes that leaders make that knowingly or unknowingly destroy trust within teams.

  1. Showing Vulnerability - Trust is built on empathy and connection. People will follow leaders who have the courage to voice their own fears and then go forth boldly, making the right decision in that moment
  2. Empowering People - Hiring experts and then telling them what to do and how to do it is a recipe for disaster. Letting people have the independence to execute their role and to make their own decisions is essential to building trust within the team. The role of the leader is to set the broad direction and to trust their people to execute.
  3. Intentional and Decisive – leaders are often in the role of visionary and innovator, this can mean that in their excitement to involve the team, they might share underdeveloped plans or thinking. This can have the opposite effect, and can create a dissonance between what was communicated and what ends up happening. This creates a disconnect in the team and can undermine trust. Leaders need to be clear on the path ahead and share what is known and developed.
  4. Open, Direct Communication – when there are interpersonal conflicts within the team, the leader should not own the issue to solve the problem or downplay the issue. The role of the leader is to encourage people to solve the conflict by going to the source of the issue directly. This empowers the individuals to grow through the conflict resolution and a reminder that the leader is impartial.
  5. Not Acting Decisively – there are times that leaders don’t act, and it is this very decision that erodes trust. When leaders are provided feedback by peers or team members or if a core organisational value is compromised, the leader that does nothing, accepts what is happening, and acceptance is endorsement.
  6. Discussing Peers Performance – employees will assume that how the leader speaks about others to them, is how the leader speaks about them to others. This erodes trust in the leaders integrity. Do not do it. Speak to a confidante outside of the team or organisation or play it through with a coach.
  7. Own your Mistakes – if you want a team to own their mistakes, it starts with the leader doing the same. Leaders who look for other people or situations to blame creates a culture where integrity is optional.
  8. Build your Teams Confidence – be the diplomat, the strategist and the sounding board for your team to be able to do good work. Communicate clearly and consistently to focus your team in the right direction.
  9. Provide support at the right time – your team can interpret your unsolicited advice and guidance as your worry, lack of belief in your team or impatience. Resilience is built when the team struggles and learns from their own mistakes. Step away, trust that they will be able to do what they need to do. When you see that the team will benefit from your help, step in, in a way that will inspire them.
  10. Leader motivation – do you have the best interests of the team or your own agenda as front of mind. Your team will see through your behaviours and whether your ego is running the show. Make sure that you show up as authentically as you possibly can. This will require you to explore your own drivers and blindspots so that you can show up as the best version of yourself.
  11. Be intentional in your communication – when you make commitments and promises on the fly and there is no follow through or delivery on those promises, trust is eroded. Be very intentional in what you decide to share and back it up with delivery.
  12. Speak with integrity – if you speak critically about your team members with their peers, they will ask themselves if you speak poorly of them when they are not there. This unknowingly diminishes trust. Building reliable, authentic relationships and open and direct communication is key to trust building in teams.
  13. Cancelling meetings at the last moment – people understand that there are times that meetings must be cancelled. However, making this a regular occurrence and at the very last minute leads to the perception that the leader doesn’t respect the time of the team member and doesn’t care about them.
  14. Cheap laughs have long term impacts – humour is a very useful communication strength if it is authentic to the leader. If it doesn’t come naturally, don’t use it. Humour must be used sensitively for it to land well.
  15. Friendships at work – we are wired for connection. Leaders are too. However, for authentic, open and direct communication to be endemic in a team; leaders need to keep friendships outside of work.

There are many ways that leaders unknowingly break trust. If a leader can start to observe themselves in how they show up and communicate they can start to see opportunities for building as opposed to breaking trust within their teams.