Leadership in Action: Trusted Relationships

Picture of Richard Smith
Richard Smith

We often hear the phrase “You can’t do it alone.”

On some days, if you’re full of caffeine and enthusiasm, you may believe you can singlehandedly accomplish whatever “it” is on your list.

But even if you could, operating solo isn’t sustainable. And it certainly isn’t advisable. Many organizations count collaboration and collegiality among their core values because when we have healthy relationships with colleagues, we not only like our work experience more, our work improves.

You read that right. Productive relationships are key to organizational success. And each productive relationship must be based on trust.

When experiencing trusted relationships at work, employees are more productive, more innovative, more collaborative, and more reliable.

Trust is a critical component of all partnerships. We need to trust that our executives, peers and direct reports will be honest and do what they say they will do, when they say they will do it. When we trust the people around us, we can focus on more important things and stay more productive rather than constantly watching our backs.

A recent Gallup study showed that having positive work relationships, or friendships, in the workplace has multiple positive effects on employees. When experiencing trusted relationships at work, employees are more productive, more innovative, more collaborative, and more reliable.  In addition, these trusted relationships tend to increase the longevity of employees in their jobs. Who wouldn’t want to work with those who bring out the best in you and make the day more enjoyable?

I have a longstanding, trusted relationship of more than 25 years with a former colleague and mentor, Rock Anderson. He is a giant in the Human Resources field, and I had the privilege of working with him at multiple points throughout my career. I consider him a treasured mentor and friend. When I emailed to let him know I planned to mention him in a blog. He simply replied, “I trust you.” His follow up message read, “Let me know if you need anything from me.” This perfectly illustrates the tone of a trusted relationship. But trust is earned and required by both parties in a relationship, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

How do you develop relationships based on trust with peers and team members? It starts with intentional interactions and respect for the perspectives of others. When speaking with leaders I am coaching, I encourage them to ask their colleagues what is important to them when building trust, and then seek to meet those mutually agreed upon expectations. This requires all individuals to be self-aware about their needs in a working relationship and to communicate those needs clearly.

Trusted Relationships: Dos for Leaders

  • Communicate openly and authentically
  • Ask questions to clarify and better understand others’ viewpoints
  • Listen attentively, without distraction
  • Show respect and empathy for others
  • Admit when you are wrong or don’t know something
  • Assume positive intent when encountering different perspectives and behaviors

Leaders would not build trust with others when behaving in these ways.

Trusted Relationships: Don’ts for Leaders

  • Talk more than listen
  • Ignore or forget about commitments
  • Withhold information that would benefit others
  • Misrepresent facts to enrich or protect themselves
  • Share information with those who should not receive it

Building relationships based on trust starts with intentional interactions and respect for the perspectives of others.

An executive whom I coached was recently hired into a new organization. They are charged with big deliverables during the first six months of their new role. Meeting their goals would have been difficult if they could not establish trust quickly. We discussed several paths to establish trust with their new team:

  • Meet one-on-one with each of their direct reports and key stakeholders to understand their needs.
  • When unveiling their strategic plan, ask for input and use it to shape and improve the plan.
  • Ask their leader for strategic priorities and seek to meet those to establish credibility and trust.

These suggestions should help the leader establish trust within their circle of influence and meet the business needs of the organization. Working to create and sustain trusted relationships benefits leaders, individual employees, and the organizational culture as a whole. 

As the leader of Benton + Bradford Consulting, I have worked with several trusted vendors and strategic partners to help me succeed in meeting the needs of my clients. These relationships, when new, were fragile. But they were characterized by openness, vulnerability, clear communication, and a willingness to work through difficult issues to find a common solution. Without this approach, these relationships may have failed.

Whether you’re onboarding new team members, hoping to improve collaborations with colleagues, or seeking to build your network of peers you can confide in and test ideas, here are some ways to build trust that you can put into practice right away.

1. Tell the truth

Transparency is a sometimes uncomfortable, but highly valuable, way to build trust. If you forgot a task or missed a deadline, don’t blame it on someone else or lie. Own it, then jump on fulfilling your obligation. Colleagues will appreciate the honesty and you will recover from this lapse with your credibility intact.

2. Admit when you don’t know something

If you don’t know the answer or remember the solution, admit it. Then, offer to find out or learn how to help. Not only will this allow you to grow in knowledge or skill, but you demonstrate authenticity. You are not pretending to know something you don’t or be someone you’re not.

3. Explain your thought process

Be more like a window than a door. Show people the reasons you are doing something. Show them why you aren’t doing something. By giving the “why” freely, you lay a foundation for trust because you aren’t keeping secrets or withholding information. This doesn’t mean you have to provide all the details. Keep confidentiality but provide the insights you can.

4. Give trust to get trust

If you want people to trust you with their honest insights, you should share with them first.  When you model the kind of dialogue you hope to have, others will respond in kind.

5. Keep reactions in check

If you scoff, dismiss, or laugh at someone else’s idea or contribution, you will be viewed as unsafe. Provide feedback in a professional manner and ask questions if an idea is unclear.  If people don’t feel that they will be treated respectfully around you, they’ll clam up.

6. Listen with intent

When you’re in a conversation, don’t just wait for your chance to talk. Seriously regard what the other person had to say, consider it, and offer thoughtful comments or questions. People will engage with you and start to trust you if they feel like you’re actively listening. Before you speak, make sure you’re sharing something of value rather than just talking to hear yourself talk.

Leaders who embrace honesty and respect for others in intentional interactions can transform their workplaces. Authenticity and innovation thrive where trusted relationships support a collaborative organizational culture.