The Hierarchy of Trust

by | Oct 6, 2016 | Culture & Engagement

As a leader, building a strong team culture requires at its foundation a high level of trust.  Trust must exist between the leader and the team as well as between team members.  The behaviors that promote trust fall into two categories: character and competence.

We all know high character people filled with honesty and integrity, but who may not have the competencies to successfully execute on a task.  For example, I consider myself a high character person, but you likely would not trust me to perform your brain surgery because I do not have the competencies to do so.  Likewise, we all know highly competent people who seemed to have been absent from school on the days lessons were taught on dignity, compassion, integrity and honesty.  For example, the used car salesman who uses their extraordinary sales skills to knowingly sell you a lemon that breaks down the minute you drive it off the lot.  Trust resides in the area in which character and competence intersect.

By practicing the following character and competence behaviors you can build trust with your team:



  1. Talk Straight– this falls somewhere between Minnesota nice and the 2016 Republican primary debates. Communicate with clarity so that you cannot be misunderstood. Do not sugar coat your thoughts or hammer people with brutal honesty.  Be direct.  Preface your discussions by declaring your intent, so you leave no doubt about what you are thinking.
  2. Demonstrate Respect-Use the “waiter rule”. Have you ever been with someone who ignores, is rude or is condescending to the wait staff when you go out to eat.  That says something about their character.  Demonstrate the same respect to everyone on your team- no matter the perceived importance of their job function.  When you treat everyone with the same respect it is noticed and it builds trust!
  3. Right Wrongs- If you’re the leader who never makes a mistake, ignore this one. You should all still be reading!  Acknowledge with your team when you have made a mistake.  This requires vulnerability, but it builds a culture of trust by creating an environment in which mistakes, which inevitably will occur, are viewed as an opportunity for reflection and growth rather than a hammer for future bludgeoning.


  1. Deliver Results– This one sounds easy, but sometimes isn’t. Set goals and deliver results based on those goals.  Be sure to acknowledge with the team when the results have been delivered.  When you achieve what you say you are going to achieve people will trust in your ability to provide future results.
  2. Confront Reality– I once worked with a leader who started every meeting by asking her team what rumors they were hearing. This allowed her to get a pulse on her team’s perceptions.  She was able to confirm, clarify or offer to seek more information and report back so that her team was working with accurate information.  The information wasn’t always what the team wanted to hear, but they knew it was accurate and they understood the “why”.
  3. Clarify Expectations- I used to tell my son to “clean” his room. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that his version of cleaning his room and my version were dramatically different.  I had to clarify my expectations so we both had the same understanding of what a clean room looked like.  The same principle holds true with your team.  Be certain to clarify expectations early and often so you and your team have exactly the same understanding of the results you are attempting to produce.

Source: The Speed of Trust, Stephen MR Covey

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