Great Leaders are Trust Builders

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A few years ago, I stepped into a leadership position where I was to lead a group of people who had lost trust. They had lost trust in their previous leader (who was no longer there), their board who governed their organization, and even had lost trust in each other. Leadership in the past had been abusive, dismissive and at times manipulative.

This was going to be a tough assignment! It reminded me a bit of working with animals that had been abused, who would either cower or snarl when they were approached. Right from day one, people I was to lead responded to me with disrespect, fear and manipulation. How was I going to turn around a team that was so dysfunctional?

About that time, I picked up a book by Patrick Lencioni, called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. (I figured a book with a title like that might be applicable.) To this day, what I learned about building trust is unforgettable. I’ll try to paraphrase in my own words.

Imagine that a person you work with has a “trust jar” sitting on their desk with a certain number of “trust marbles” in it. When you, their leader, do something that they perceive to be trustworthy, it’s like putting a marble in their jar. The more of your marbles they have in their jar, the more secure they feel concerning your leadership, and the more they trust you. When you do something that causes them to feel insecure, it’s like removing a marble from their jar. When you are withdrawing more marbles than you are depositing, their anxiety increases. When you’ve removed all of the marbles from their jar, you’ve depleted their trust, and irrational behavior is likely to be the result.

If you’ve been a leader for more than a week, you’ve discovered that your actions, at least at times, are going to cause someone distress. You can’t always make decisions that everyone is going to be comfortable with. Getting things done sometimes necessitates withdrawing a trust marble from someone’s jar.

And that’s before we factor in honest leadership mistakes, which we all make.

The key to building trust with your people is to maintain a positive balance of marbles in their trust jars. Since you know you’re going to be making withdrawals from time to time, then you must be proactive about making intentional trust deposits frequently. (By the way, this is true of the people you WORK FOR as well as the people who work for you.)

What kinds of behaviors make deposits into peoples’ trust jars? It’s pretty likely that your people would answer that question the same way you would. So begin by asking yourself that question. Write down the list of behaviors that add marbles to your personal trust jar.

The Golden Rule that we all grew up with says we should treat others the way we want to be treated. But the Platinum Rule says that great leaders know their people well enough to know how THEY need to be treated. So take the next step and ask each of your people individually what kinds of behaviors they find to be trustworthy. Most likely, just asking them that question will be a significant trust deposit of its own.

My story ended well. Even though I have moved on from that organization, I’m happy to say many of those former-employees are still my dear, trusted friends today.

For discussion:

  1. What leadership characteristics or behaviors build trust with you? Do you think any of those might be unique to your personality?
  2. If you asked people you lead what kinds of leadership characteristics or behaviors they perceive as trustworthy, what message do you think your question would send to them?

Published by Jay

Jay Pullins has been leading and developing leaders in a variety of settings for over 25 years. He has a diverse background as a military officer, an appointed public official, and Executive Pastor of Alaska’s largest church. Jay is the founder and owner of Anchorage-based Catapult Leadership Solutions, providing expertise in developing the character and competency of leaders in all sectors. A 1989 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Jay led U.S. and multi-national teams for the U.S. Air Force, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), NORAD, and the Alaska National Guard. He led combat crews as an Air Battle Manager in Operation DESERT STORM, the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and counter-drug operations in Central and South America. Jay retired as an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel in 2011. Jay served as Chief of Staff to the Lieutenant Governor, then Special Assistant to the Governor of Alaska. He also served as Executive Pastor of ChangePoint church for five years. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the US Air Force Academy, and a Master’s Degree in Adult Education from the University of Oklahoma. He serves as a consultant and coach to church leaders for 3dMovements, and serves on the Board of Directors for Beyond Borders and the Conflict Resolution Center. Jay and his wife, Sonia, live in Anchorage, Alaska, and have two grown sons.

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