What Science Says About How Leaders Build Trust: The 7 Best Strategies

There’s a lot on the plate of leaders today – with heavy pressure to attract people, retain them and bring out their best – amid debates about how, when and where the work will take place. But perhaps one of the best and most impactful things leaders can do is build trusting relationships with their team members.

In a relationship of trust, you know that you can count on a person and you believe in their integrity. You trust them to do the right thing. And on a personal level, you trust that they have your best interests at heart.

Confidence in tasks and relationships

You can also think of trust in terms of task interactions and relationships. When you trust someone to complete a task, you trust the task, and when you trust that they will keep your confidences, you have a relationship of trust. And it is possible to have one and not the other.

For example, you have a co-worker who is impeccable at following up but not someone you would trust with your career goals, or you work with a teammate who knows all your biggest secrets but is terrible. to get things going. Of course, the best relationships are those where you have high levels of trust in both the task and the relationship.


And trust pays off. When you feel a high degree of trust in your teammate, leader, or team, you are more likely to feel a sense of psychological safety and to be fully invested in your work. You’ll exhibit your goofy sense of humour, your crazy ideas or the eccentric quality that makes you unique – all very good for your well-being and also for the strength the team can draw from harnessing many perspectives and diverse talents.

And ironically, when you feel most comfortable in relationships, you can accept higher levels of discomfort – or positive stretch – in your learning, development, and innovation processes. You feel emotionally safe to take appropriate risks and try new things in your job. You feel protected enough to push for new innovations or test your limits while developing new skills.

Build trust

According to a new study by Ohio State Universityleaders can create high levels of trust in teams by doing three key things.

  • Admit mistakes. In the study, leaders who were able to see themselves accurately and admit their own mistakes tended to foster trust in others. Classic leadership wisdom agrees that when leaders are more vulnerable – sharing their own concerns or uncertainties – they tend to develop more trusting relationships.
  • Appreciate others. Another important element of creating feelings of trust was valuing others and their strengths. The best leaders not only recognize and express their appreciation for others, but they also value long-term relationships and demonstrate care by seeking to help others. They connect, ask questions, listen, and show empathy and compassion.
  • Be open to learning. And a third element of expanding trust was an openness to learn from others, which was distinct from arrogance or a belief in having all the answers. Intellectual humility reinforces this approach. People tend to build credibility by having clear opinions and expertise and balancing them with a willingness to listen to multiple viewpoints and learn from others who think differently.

In the study, these three characteristics of leaders tended to help people around them feel comfortable and share more openly. Additionally, they tended to feel more empowered, so they were more likely to take action. People also reported feeling more valued with this type of leadership, so they acted with more confidence and their actions had more impact.

Cement trust

Leadership has been studied by experts, gurus, and scholars for years, and based on this body of knowledge, there are also a few more ways leaders can build trust.

  • Be honest. Sure.
  • Honor commitments. People want to work with other people who follow up and who can be relied on. Often, the commitments made by a leader have a significant impact on an employee’s career. For example, they promise to help an employee in their development or promise to have a position re-evaluated for a raise or promotion. Given the impact of the commitments made by a leader, keeping them is of great importance. But even small commitments matter, and keeping them builds trust.
  • Stand up for what is right. A study of 60 different societies by the University of Oxford found that a basic need of all people studied was a perception of fairness. Moreover, when people do not perceive that they are treated fairly, it is one of the main reasons why they leave a job, a leader or an organization. Thus, leaders must stand up for what is right and take steps to ensure that practice is consistent with values. This can take the form of ensuring fairness among team members or empowering workers. It can be taking a stand on key issues and standing up for an employee who needs support or advocacy.
  • Communicate effectively. To build trust, the ability to share openly is also essential. With the growing ambiguity and complexity of the world, leaders are rarely able to provide certainty. After all, no one knows exactly what will come next. But leaders can build trust by communicating with clarity, being transparent about what they know, what they’re exploring, what the possibilities might be, and when the next communication touchpoint is.

In sum

Leadership is no small challenge today, but it never has been. The leadership is fundamentally optimistic about the future. When leaders inspire vision, direction and purpose, they embrace the future. When leaders set strategies, goals, and expectations, they hope that these will be achieved over time.

The best leaders build strong relationships with a lot of trust, so people feel safe to participate fully and motivated to expend effort and energy to achieve something meaningful and important, together.

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