4 Strategies for Building Trust Within Senior Leadership Teams

July 27, 2023 Randy Conley

Senior leadership teams rise and fall with trust.

I’ve seen this truth borne out both in my experience as an executive leader and when working with numerous organizations to help them build trust within their senior leadership ranks.

When trust is present, senior leadership teams have robust discussions where candor flourishes and curiosity regarding others’ viewpoints is deeply respected. High trust within these teams makes honest and transparent communication the norm rather than the exception, allowing team members to mine the depths of each other’s expertise and reach better quality decisions. High levels of trust among senior leaders fuels a spirit of collaboration rather than competition, because each member is empowered to lead their respective functions without trying to one-up others.

On the flip side, low trust within a senior leadership team foreshadows dysfunction throughout the entire organization. Suspicion and distrust among team members lead to turf wars, where each person takes a “me over we” attitude. Siloed behavior reigns, hoarding of resources is commonplace, and the organization splits into fiefdoms with individuals pursuing their own goals instead of working together to make the organization successful.

So how can senior leadership teams build and sustain high levels of trust? Although trust is built in myriad ways, a few fundamental practices will pay big dividends for senior leaders who are willing to take a chance on trust.

To start, senior leadership teams need to talk about trust. Senior leaders are not unlike other leaders in that trust is often ignored until there’s a problem. When trust is present, we tend to take it for granted, but when it’s not, it suddenly becomes the most important issue on the table. To prevent this, senior leaders need to make trust a regular part of their conversations.

It begins with leaders adopting a common understanding of trust. This is important because each of us has a slightly different perception of what trust is, driven largely by our early childhood experiences and our temperaments. Research shows there are four elements of trust, which we’ve illustrated in the ABCD trust model:

  • Able – demonstrate competence
  • Believable – act with integrity
  • Connected – care about others
  • Dependable – honor commitments

Even more important than knowing and agreeing on the elements of trust is using behaviors that align with each respective element. Trust is built through behaviors, which means it’s a skill that can be learned and developed.

Once senior leaders are speaking the same language of trust, the next step is to conduct a trust audit. Each leader can evaluate themselves individually on how frequently they use behaviors that align with each of the four elements of trust. This honest self-evaluation will allow each leader to understand where their strengths lie in building trust, and where they need to pay more attention to building trust with others. Additionally, each senior leader should solicit feedback from the other members of the team, so they have a full picture of how they’re perceived within the group.

A trust audit is not for the faint of heart! It requires both courage and humility, but it’s critical that senior leaders model the same kind of self-reflection, learning, and growth they expect from every member in the organization.

A third strategy to build trust within a senior leadership team is for each member to grow increasingly comfortable with extending trust to others – starting with their fellow leadership team members. Ken Blanchard and I discuss this in our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. Simple Truth #30 states: “Someone must make the first move to extend trust. Leaders go first.” Trust doesn’t happen by accident. One person must make the decision to extend trust in the hope it will be reciprocated. It’s risky to trust others, but there’s no way around it; risk and trust go hand in hand. The famous writer Ernest Hemingway summed up the necessity of extending trust when he said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

A fourth strategy for building trust within senior leadership teams is to filter decisions through the lens of trust. What does that look like? It can be as simple as answering this question: Will the results of this decision build or erode trust in our team/organization? Answers of “no” or “not sure” should serve as a warning sign that more thought and discussion is warranted prior to finalizing a course of action.

The reality of being a senior leader means being faced with what I call “trust dilemmas.” A trust dilemma is a situation where your decisions/actions will likely build trust with one stakeholder group at the expense of eroding trust with a different group. In those cases, senior leaders must be extra diligent in communicating the rationale behind their decisions and transparently acknowledging how they handled the trust dilemma. Not every decision will build trust with all stakeholders, but if people understand how the leader made the decision and the factors they took into consideration, they will be more likely to understand, if not support, the leader’s actions.

Building trust within senior leadership teams can present some natural challenges. Each member of the group has immense responsibility for leading their respective parts of the organization, and the temptation is great to put their individual interests ahead of the organization’s. Senior leadership teams can proactively build trust by agreeing on a common language of trust, conducting introspective trust audits of their relationships, extending trust to each other, and thoughtfully considering the impacts to trust in all their decisions and actions.

Trust starts at the top with senior leaders. When they authentically embrace and embody trustworthy behavior, it sets the tone for the rest of the organization to follow suit.

About the Author

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is the Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for Blanchard®. He is coauthor of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe, helping them build trust in the workplace. In 2022, Randy and Ken Blanchard coauthored Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, and most recently, Simple Truths of Leadership Playbook: A 52-Week Game Plan for Becoming a Trusted Servant Leader.

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