How to be the kind of leader people trust

Written by Jo Owen CMgr CCMI Tuesday 24 November 2020
Exercising ‘informal power’ is the way to get things done, but trust is hard to acquire and easy to lose
People shaking hands at work as a sign of trust

Machiavelli asked whether it is better for a leader to be feared or loved. He decided that love is fickle, so it is better to be feared. Leaders have gravitated to the same answer for the following 500 years. The Industrial Revolution did not bring enlightenment; it brought coercive management of the masses.

But in the 21st century, coercive management has finally passed its sell-by date. Workers of the world have not united in a Marxist fight against capital. They have done something far more revolutionary: they have become educated professionals. That changes everything. Professionals can do far more, but they also demand far more than workers of the past. And micro-managing professionals is a shortcut to under-performance.

Machiavelli may be wrong about fear, but he is right about love. Managers who want to be liked fail. Seeking popularity means that you will never make the tough decision, you will duck the difficult conversation and you will accept excuses for why targets need to be softer and why they are then missed. And when the next restructuring comes along, the bowl of candy by the side of your hot desk will not save you.

The true currency of management in the 21st century is neither fear nor love, because the nature of management has changed. Today’s managers can no longer rely on making things happen through people they control. You have to make things happen through people you either do not control (because they are in other departments or firms) or do not want to be controlled (because they are professionals). You can no longer tell people what to do. You have to persuade them to act and influence them to follow you. This makes management far harder and far more rewarding than it has ever been in the past.

The true currency of the 21st century management is now trust and respect. If you are genuinely trusted and respected you will be the sort of manager people want to follow, not the sort of manager people have to follow because of the vagaries of the HR system. With trust and respect you will have influence and power far beyond your formal area of authority; you will be able to make things happen even when you do not have formal control. Informal power is becoming as important as formal power in firms.

If you want to become the trusted manager, you can never say “trust me”: you will sound like a second-hand car salesman or, even worse, a politician. Trust has to be earned. Here are the four elements of trust that you can work on to become the trusted and respected leader:

1. Values alignment

Values alignment matters because human nature is to trust people who are like ourselves: this may be natural, but it is a disaster for diversity. Building values alignment requires that you have two ears and one mouth, and that you use them in that proportion: listen more than you speak. Find out what you have in common with the other person: education, holidays, personal and professional interests. This means that social chit-chat is not a waste of time. It is a vital investment in discovering where you have common values that you can celebrate together.

2. Agenda alignment

Agenda alignment matters because we need to know that we are all playing for the same team towards the same goal. It is hard to trust someone who seems to be playing for the opposition. Aligning agendas is hard work, because all organisations are set up for conflict. The way that priorities are decided, resources allocated, promotions made is through a process of constant (and hopefully constructive) conflict where the best ideas and people emerge successfully. Again, listening is vital. You cannot align agendas with someone if you do not really understand what their priorities are. The skill is to then find the win-win where you have a common need and common agenda you can both work on. This agenda is only partly logical and about the firm’s goals. The more important agenda is often personal, emotional and political. If you can tap into the personal agenda, then you understand their real motivation and you can elicit the response you need.

3. Credibility

Credibility is vital. You may share the values and agenda of a colleague, but if they have no credibility you will neither trust nor respect them. Credibility is about doing as you say. Professionals normally perform well when it comes to doing, but endless crises are caused by the ‘saying’ part of the credibility equation. It is easy to use weasel phrases such as “I will try… I will do my best… I will look into it… I will see what can be done.” These give us the perfect excuse to come back two weeks later and say, “I looked into it, but it was not possible.” At that moment, all our credibility vanishes because what we said and what was heard were completely different. What was heard was not the weasel excuse; what will have been heard was “I will...”

Doing as you say means you need the courage to have a difficult conversation about expectations at the start, rather than an impossible conversation about outcomes at the end. The “I said you said but she meant and I thought…” discussion rapidly goes nowhere. Remember that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions: you will be judged by your actions, not your intentions.

4. Risk

Risk is the rust in trust. Trust is not a digital on/off switch. We trust different people to different degrees in different situations. I may trust a stranger in the street to tell me the way to the Post Office; I would be unwise to trust that same stranger with my entire life savings (or what remains of them). In practice, this means you have to build trust one step at a time. Show that you can be trusted on the small things; always follow up on even the most minor commitments. And if you have a big proposal that will look risky to others, work to de-risk it. Here are three ways you can de-risk a proposal:

  • Break it into small chunks. Make the commitment at least appear modest and reversible.
  • Borrow some trust. Get the support and endorsement of trusted executives and experts who will vouch for both you and for the proposal.
  • Increase the risk of doing nothing or of alternatives. Most managers are risk-averse: show that your idea is less risky than other options and you will find that opposition to your idea melts away.

Ultimately, trust is the invisible glue that keeps organisations together. If we do not trust our colleagues, the firm will be a competitive and political snake pit. By becoming the trusted manager in your firm, you can exert influence and informal power far in excess of your formal authority. Trust is the key to success in 21st-century management.

The requirement for real leaders to build trust, and the integral relationship between trust and productivity, are two of the stand-out themes in CMI’s recent Management Transformed study, which asked 2,300 managers how they believe leadership and management must change after the Coronavirus pandemic.

Jo Owen CMgr CCMI is a serial entrepreneur and author. His latest book is The Leadership Skills Handbook: 100 Essential Skills You Need to be a Leader.

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