How to Know Your Leaders Are Trustworthy

Let me start by saying I usually do not write on political leadership. However, November is coming upon us quickly and this election season has been nothing short of eventful. Is that what you would call it…eventful? Personally, I’ve had some good conversations about the upcoming elections with colleagues, friends, and for what I'm most thankful for, my kids. It's been interesting and equally rewarding seeing them do their own research as well as engage in conversations to find out what their mother and I think. What I've gathered from my kids and other individuals is a feeling of indecisiveness when it comes to the election. What I believe invokes this indecisiveness is the lack of trust in either of the candidates. Looking at their past actions and decisions, as well as hearing their claims and promises, presents some nonalignment that makes voters increasingly uncertain in the decision they will soon have to make.

Hand drawn TRUST process for presentations and reports, business concept on blackboard..

At times I want to laugh out loud when I hear the pundits saying things like, “We are working on making our candidate seem more trustworthy." Trust, from my perspective, is not a short-term fix when it is violated. The time to think about trust is before the violation occurs. My hope and prayer for you as a leader is that you never have to work on restoring your follower's trust. I hope that in all you do, you remain trustworthy in the eyes of your constituents.

It is undoubtedly certain that trust is crucial in leadership, and if trust is broken it makes following leaders more difficult. In Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau's classic article The Enemies of Trust (Harvard Business Review), several examples of how trust can be destroyed are provided. You may be thinking, "I don't need an article to tell me that!" as I imagine many of us have experienced broken trust from leaders or even entire organizations (even as I eluded to with the current election). Instead of looking at trust from when it's broken, I want to give you two items to reflect on as a measure of the level of trust you have earned as a leader.

Be Clear and Consistent

In previous blog posts I have emphasized the importance in communication. I've also mentioned the importance of repetition so that what you communicate is remembered and repeated by your followers (hence why I keep repeating the importance of communication.) Yet, communication loses it's value when the message is not clear and consistent. If a leader isn't clear when articulating expectations, it is difficult for followers to trust that the leader even knows what it is that they want to be accomplished. Equally, when multiple messages get communicated, the inconsistency of the message leaves you with questions and hesitation, not assurance.

Not only should the message be consistent, but the standards of followers should be on an equal level. Galford and Drapeau suggest that leaders may show favoritism to certain employees so that particular employee stays with the organization, however, the leader "doesn't take into account the cynicism engendered in the rest of the organization." (The Enemies of Trust, HBR)

Be Honest

It's hard to talk about trust without centering the topic on honesty. Honesty is a compliment to trust. Think about a time someone was dishonest with you and the hesitancy you experienced trusting them the next time they gave you their word. That's a pretty basic example of the value of honesty, but let's think about some other circumstances where honesty from leaders is valuable. For example, Galford and Drapeau discuss the problems with false feedback and a leader's inability to be honest about their follower's performance, whether good or bad, hinders future decisions of termination or even promotion with employees. Not only does this lessen follower's trust in their leader, but it limits the growth of the organization.

Leaders also must be willing to trust their followers. Putting faith in your followers to complete a task or step up in their own leadership gives value and recognition to the follower. We all know leaders who "hoarded responsibility" from an employee, leaving the employee resentful for not having the opportunity to use his/her skills and develop professionally.

I have a feeling we are all going to be hearing a lot about trust between now and November. These are two metrics I am using to evaluate trust in political candidates. How about you? What will you be using to assess whether or not you trust your leaders?

Where to Go From Here?

You might be thinking, "This is an interesting perspective, Scott, but what do I do with it?" My goal with this post is not to leave you with a list of "should's and shouldn't's," but to simply get you thinking about the leaders in your life. Whether it's the ones you know and follow personally or the ones that are connected in your community, what do you trust or not trust in their leadership? Is their communication clear and consistent? Are they honest and trusting of their followers? What would help you trust your leaders? Or, an even bigger question might be, to help your followers trust you?


Spend some time reflecting on trust and what it means to you. How much do you value trust? How much do you expect your leaders to be trustworthy? What are some other habits of trust that you look for in a leader that we didn't mention? Let us know what they are in the comments below.