Four Reasons Why Flexing Your Leadership Style Builds Trust

June 29, 2023 Randy Conley

Did you know that most managers are one-trick ponies? What do I mean by that?

According to our research, 54% of managers can use only one leadership style comfortably. That means more than half of all managers have one primary style of leadership they use in every situation, regardless of its effectiveness. It’s the personification of the well known saying “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail.”

Over-reliance on a single leadership style means many leaders end up over-supervising (a.k.a. micromanaging) or under-supervising (a.k.a. abandoning) their team members, both of which result in negative outcomes such as not achieving goals, duplication of work, frustration, and poor morale. Perhaps the greatest casualty of one-trick-pony leaders is the trust they lose with team members. Not everyone is a nail, and they don’t appreciate constantly being hammered by their boss.

Learn to Lead Situationally

The remedy is clear: leaders need to learn how to flex their style to match the needs of the situation. That’s where SLII® comes into play. SLII® is our approach to leading situationally. It teaches that there is no one best style of leadership. The best leadership style is the one that matches the needs of the individual. If you’re not familiar with SLII®, here’s a brief primer.

SLII® leaders practice three skills: goal setting, diagnosing, and matching. Setting clear SMART goals with team members is the starting point—because without clear goals, it’s impossible to measure performance. SMART goals create alignment between leader and team member.

Once the goal is clear, the leader uses the second skill, diagnosing, to determine the development level of the team member. There are four development levels (D1-D4). Development level is a combination of two factors: competence—the individual’s demonstrated task-specific and transferable knowledge and skills on a goal or task; and commitment—the individual’s motivation and confidence on a goal or task. Development level is goal or task specific. It is not an overall rating of an individual’s skills or attitude.

After determining the individual’s development level on the goal/task, the leader uses the third skill of SLII®—matching. They match their leadership style to the individual’s development level.

Leadership style is a pattern of behaviors leaders use, over time, as perceived by others. There are two basic leadership style behaviors: directive behavior—telling and showing people what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and providing frequent feedback on results; and supportive behavior— listening, facilitating self-reliant problem solving, encouraging, praising, and involving others in decision making.

There are four leadership styles (S1-S4) consisting of different combinations of directive and supportive behaviors.

Since individuals at development level 1 (D1) have commitment but lack competence, the leader needs to provide high direction (S1—Directing). Individuals at D2, who lack both competence and commitment, need the leader to provide both high direction and high support (S2—Coaching). Individuals at D3 have competence but variable commitment, and, therefore, need high support (S3—Supporting) from the leader. Since individuals at D4 have both competence and commitment, leaders need to provide low amounts of direction or support (S4—Delegating).

When people take a situational approach to leadership, they partner with their people, working side by side to align on goals, development levels, and leadership styles. This “match,” using the common language of SLII®, contributes to higher trust, positive employee intentions, and significant results.

Leading Situationally Builds Trust

In our book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, Ken Blanchard and I share Simple Truth #27: Leadership begins with trust.

Some leaders charge headlong into setting goals and strategies for their team without giving much thought to building trust. The most successful leaders, however, realize their number one priority is to build trust with their team. Flexing your leadership style to give team members the direction and support they need, when they need it, is a huge trust booster. There are four reasons for this:

  • Clarity—Aligning on goals, development level, and the leadership style needed provide clarity for both the team member and leader. It prevents miscommunication and misunderstanding, and accelerates performance. Both leader and follower are clear on their roles and on who needs to do what. As we like to say, all good performance starts with clear goals. That type of clarity builds trust between team members and leaders.
  • Competence—We trust leaders who are competent in their roles. Not only do leaders need to display competence in the technical aspects of their job, they also need to be competent in the leadership duties of their role. The three skills of SLII®—goal setting, diagnosing, and matching­—are the fundamental skills of an effective leader who builds trust with their people.
  • Connection—SLII® is an others-focused approach to leadership. It focuses on the needs of the team member to inform how the leader should respond, as opposed to one-trick-pony leaders who expect team members to adjust to the leader’s preferred style of leading. SLII® also focuses on helping people reach D4, or self-reliance, on their various goals or tasks. People value and trust leaders who have their best interests in mind and are focused on helping them learn and grow.
  • Consistency—Consistent and predictable behavior builds trust with others. It may seem counterintuitive that leading situationally builds trust; however, consistency comes not from the specific behaviors the leader uses, but from the approach. Team members can trust that their leader will consistently flex their style to be an appropriate match for the situation. Knowing they can depend on their leader to give them the right kind of leadership at the right time inspires high levels of trust.

Trust is the lifeblood of being a successful leader. Without trust, your leadership is doomed. Creativity is stifled, innovation grinds to a halt, and reasoned risk-tasking is abandoned. However, with trust, all things are possible. Energy, progress, productivity, and ingenuity flourish. Commitment, engagement, loyalty, and excellence become more than empty words in a company mission statement; they become reality. But trust doesn’t happen by accident; you have to flex your approach to the needs of each team member. When you do that, you’ll have trust.

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.

More Content by Randy Conley
Previous Resource
Old People with Old Ideas Got You Down? Ask Madeleine
Old People with Old Ideas Got You Down? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine, I am fairly new to the workforce. I have a degree in accounting and got a great job right o...

Next Resource
Keep Pride Alive Year Round
Keep Pride Alive Year Round

Chloë Faulkner shares five great ways to celebrate Pride in the workplace!