Open with Caution...Do You Trust Me?

“I just don’t know where they are coming from” lamented Julie. “Of course I am trustworthy. How could they think I am not?” The tension in the room was rising as she was reading the summary of her leadership 360 feedback report.  

“I take good care of all of the people on the team, walking around asking about how they are doing. I ask about their kids and what they did fun over the weekend. I mean I work hard at showing genuine concern for them.”

Julie continued with simmering anger underneath her words. “I mean I don’t question them at all when they have to leave in the middle of the afternoon when the school calls and one of the kids are in the principal’s office sick and needs to be picked up immediately. In fact, I am actually proactive and tell them, ‘Go we will cover whatever you have to do, just go and take care of your family.’’’

As I listened to Julie struggle with the feedback, I sat back and said to myself, you know she does sound like she has care and compassion and a genuine concern.  But the 360 is saying that there are those on her team that do not trust her.

Where is the disconnect?

I reflected back on previous clients who also received feedback revealing trust as a potential issue in their leadership.

My thoughts turned to Tim whose team said that he was the most dependable manager anyone could ever have. If you ever needed anything all you had to do was ask Tim and he was there for you. Tim got great accolades for being reliable, whether you were in crisis or just needed to talk something out. Tim struggled when he was reading his 360 feedback and trying to process the disconnect between being dependable and reliable, yet being seen as not being fully trustworthy.

How is it that two leaders, one who is seen as showing concern, care, and compassion and the other who clearly demonstrates reliability and dependability both be seen as not being able to be trusted?

Well, it turns out that trust, or what those in our organizations perceive as trust, are rooted in two parts of our brain; our cognitive thinking, and our emotional feeling abilities.

Trust has, as a component of its formation, something called psychological safety. In order for your team to trust you, they need to both KNOW and FEEL that they are safe. Psychological safety is the portion of our being that says all is well. You can be free to be yourself. No harm is going to come to you, this is an open and judgment-free zone.

Experts have found this psychological safety is built on a couple of important foundations. The first is that the leader is able to develop cognition-based trust. This is the type of trust that Tim was giving himself such high marks for demonstrating. Tim indeed received excellent marks for being dependable and reliable. But something was missing.

And the second type, like Julie, who was perceived as not fully trustworthy by her team even though she was demonstrating strong affect-based trust abilities. These strengths are based on emotional bonds of care, compassion, and concern between people. Even though she demonstrated affect-based trust, Julie was missing something.

Well by now you have guessed it.

Julie was missing that cognitive-based trust from her team. While she was great at caring and demonstrating compassion, she was unreliable. She was often triple booked on her calendar and members of her team would need her support in meetings or presentations and Julie was nowhere to be found. Julie could not be trusted to show up.

And while Tim was a dependable manager who had an open door policy, walking into his office was another matter entirely. Tim, being an intellectual and (literally) the smartest guy in the room, would give people on his team the feeling they were insignificant by intimidating them, never asking questions, or showing empathy, just quick with an opinion on what should be done. Tim could not be trusted to care.

So what about you as a leader? Are you able to display both aspects of trust, cognitive and affective? Do you find yourself relying more on one and apologizing for the other?

Trust is a really big deal in leadership (blinding glimpse of the obvious here). Most leaders I meet would never say they are not trustworthy and they often will cite one aspect or the other of the psychological safety equation.

Which side do you lean toward? Cognitive or affective? Is it time you gave full consideration to what goes into driving trust with your team?