The Importance of Trust to Your Leadership

By Gary Clayton

When you are the leader, it’s easy to lose sight of why people trust you to lead them.  Just ask a CEO who was suddenly deposed - or former President George W. Bush, who seemed surprised near the end of his presidency that the Republicans in Congress no longer followed his leadership.

Trust can be a tricky thing. It’s complicated, as it depends on how your followers view your character, your skills and your veracity. Trust also comes in three flavors:

  • Identification – whether your desires, goals and intentions are seen as the same as your followers
  • Knowledge – whether your followers see you as predictable and can anticipate your behavior
  • Calculus or Deterrence – whether your followers feel safe in your group, knowing everyone wants to avoid physical and emotional risks that can result from a commitment failure.

The trust is evident in the performance of a three-person equestrian vaulting team competing for the World Championship.

The trust is evident in the performance of an equestrian vaulting team.

Let’s make sense of this by looking at trust in an equestrian vaulting team competing in the World Vaulting Competition.  We can easily guess that there is strong identification-based trust within the team (their shared goal is to win the championship).  By working together over a long period of time to perfect their act, they have developed knowledge-based trust (they know they can rely on and predict precisely what each person will do in both the best and worst of conditions).  Finally, they know how strongly they are committed to each other and avoiding the potential risks that a momentary lapse might bring upon each other.  They are a calculus, a system of interrelated parts that will succeed or fail together.

Is there a leader here?  Of course there is.  Vaulting on to the back of a moving horse is never a trivial  task.  The first vaulter must get set on the horse and determine that it is safe for the second - and then the third - members of the team to vault on to the horse.  The latter two members must trust in the judgment of their leader implicitly, watching for her cues that it is safe to get on and off the horse.

The same dimensions of trust exist for your followers, whether you have one or two or thousands.    When you first move into a new leadership role in an organization, the first trust dimension to develop often is calculus/deterrence.  Basically, the followers will  determine how much they support you based  upon a rewards/risks calculation.  They will size you up and support you if they view the benefits of following you as greater than the penalties of resisting you.  The penalties, as such, may come from you as the leader or from the group as it supports or resists you.

Identification-based trust usually doesn’t appear in your followers until you have had time to prove your values and goals match your followers.  If you have a strong reputation that precedes your arrival and which resonates with your followers, then they may identify with you from the start.  Alternatively, if you develop and deliver a compelling message, identification-based trust may come quickly.

Knowledge-based trust usually comes last, as it takes time for you and your followers learn how each acts in various situations and possibly even modify the way each acts based on that knowledge.

The key to successful leadership is to realize that the process of gaining trust can stall within any of these dimensions and cripple your leadership.   Equally important is to realize that you can lose your followers’ trust along any of these dimensions at any time through inconsistencies in your actions or the action of another party that changes the reward/deterrence balance for calculus-based trust.  Eternal vigilance , watching over what you and others say and do, is the price of successful leadership.

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Categories : Science