Empowering Leaders Build and Maintain Relationships of Trust


An important practice of empowering leaders is that they build and maintain personal relationships with their followers–relationships based on trust. Leadership is about relationships, and empowering leaders are aware of their impact on others and seek to communicate and behave in ways that build trust.

Are You Trustworthy?

A short assessment of trust in your organization and the extent to which you are perceived as trustworthy can help identify the level of trust you enjoy as a leader in your organization. How you answer the following questions is directly related to the nature and quality of trust relationships you have built around you in your organization.

Q:  To what extent does trust exists in your organization?

Q:  To what extent can people trust you to achieve business goals?

Q:  To what extent do you keep commitments and act with integrity?

Q:  To what extent do you act in trusting ways?

Q:  To what extent do people feel like you care about them and have their interest at heart?

If you answer these five questions “to a great extent,” you have likely built strong relationships of trust around you. If the answers are “to some extent” or “to a very little extent,” then there is significant opportunity for you to strengthen relationships of trust around you.

Defining Trust

You can have a wonderful vision within the organization, but if trust is low, you will fight an uphill battle to implement that vision, because it takes the collective effort of many people to accomplish organization goals. At the Center for Organizational Design, we define trust as “confidence in your relationship with others.” This trust consists of three parts:  Confidence in the competence, integrity, and fairness of others. When we trust someone, then, we believe the following about them:

  1. They are capable of achieving business results.
  2. We can count on them to do what they say.
  3.  That person cares about our interest and well being as their own.

Weakening or Strengthening Trust

When trust is low, relationships are characterized by alienation, competition, and conflict. If there is a high level of alienation, competition and conflict in your organization, you can be sure that trust is low. When there is a high level of openness, collaboration, and good will, you can be sure that trust is alive and well in the organization.

Whether trust is high or low, empowering leaders can play a significant role in building trust within the organization.

What Weakens Trust: First, leaders can help identify behaviors and attitudes that weaken trust and help followers be aware of how they may be undermining trust in the organization. Some common behaviors and attitudes that weaken trust are: participating in win/lose competition; betraying confidences; putting personal interests above organization or other individual needs; acting in untrusting ways; professional incompetence; lack of integrity and predictability; or hogging scarce resources. When leaders can help teams or competing divisions and units talk about the level of trust and identify weakening behaviors, people can often commit to stop acting in untrusting and competing ways. This simple discussion and agreement helps people let go of negative feelings and begin to establish relationships from a more neutral ground.

What Strengthens Trust: The second thing leaders can do to build trust is to help players identify behaviors and attitudes that strengthen trust. Some common behaviors and attitudes that strengthen trust are: Acting in trusting ways; keeping confidences; putting organization and other group or individual needs above your own; doing what you say; being professionally competent; sharing information openly; willingness to share scarce resources; showing personal concern for others; treating others with respect and fairness; willingness to collaborate; and creating win-win situations. Besides identifying and discussing ways to build trust, effective and empowering leaders act in trusting ways, ask for the commitment of others to do the same, and then hold them accountable in individual interactions, in their teams, and in the larger organization.

Building Personal Relationships of Trust One-On-One

The one thing leaders have most control over is the nature of their one-to-one relationships in the organization. So possibly the most significant impact empowering leaders can have on the organization is to improve the level of trust in their one-on-one relationships with others. Following are three steps to help you do this:

  1.  Evaluate the level of trust you believe exists between you and each member of your staff, rating each relationship as high, medium or low.
  2. Identify a few key low-trust relationships you want to improve.
  3. Develop a plan for how you will build more trust in these relationships over the next few months.


Leadership is about relationships.  Empowering leaders seek to communicate and behave in ways that build trust. The extent to which you model trust, achieve business goals, keep your commitments, and show personal concern for others will directly influence the level of trust in the organization you lead.

Trust is defined as “confidence in your relationship with others—confidence in their competence, fairness, and integrity. As an empowering leader, you will become more effective if you can:

  1. Identify and minimize behaviors and attitudes that weaken trust in the organization.
  2. Identify and reinforce behaviors and attitudes that strengthen trust in the organization.
  3. Evaluate and strengthen the one-on-one relationships of trust you have with those that work directly for and with you.

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