Building trust for leaders

Learn how to show your employees you’re trustworthy by exploring these core competencies and behaviours.

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Why this matters

Teams with high trust can benefit from the following:

  • Higher productivity
  • Employee engagement
  • Increased knowledge-sharing 
  • Employee retention
  • Improved customer loyalty
  • Increased revenue
  • Improved collaboration with internal and external stakeholders

Some studies (see References below) suggest that trustworthy leadership is the most important factor influencing these benefits. 

It’s also true that a trustworthy leader is central to: 

  • Gaining team member loyalty
  • Influencing team outcomes
  • Navigating change and uncertainty 

You may find that, by understanding the competencies that build trustworthiness, you feel more confident to trust yourself in your leadership role and make difficult decisions.

Zach Mercurio, author of The Invisible Leader, suggests that employees feel that they matter to you when they feel that they're valued and that they add value. Employees should be able to say that you, their leader:

  • Know their full name
  • Ask about their life
  • Know their struggles
  • Miss them when they're not at work
  • Check-in on them

As well as that you, their leader:

  • Show them how they make a difference
  • Recognize their unique gifts
  • Ask for their opinion
  • Give them responsibility
  • Show that you rely on them

How to build trust

Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. But, when we understand which behaviours build trust, we can intentionally act to earn and maintain trust. We can also learn how to rebuild broken trust.

Many competencies and behaviours build trust:

Explore the competencies to determine where you can improve. They’ll also help you become aware of your current strengths so you can continue to reinforce them. 

You’ll find a section titled, “If you want to improve, have that talk…,” for each competency. These sections offer practical strategies for addressing and improving these competencies through interaction with your team.

Remember: The competencies that build trust work together to support effective relationships with your own team and other stakeholders. 

  • Be intentional and consistent in your behaviours and actions to build trust daily in the little things.
  • Lead with trust and act with authenticity so your employees know they can trust you.
  • When trust has been broken, or you sense it has, lean into the discomfort to have an honest conversation. The information below can help.

Core competencies and strategies

By learning and applying the key competencies for trustworthiness, you’ll be able to gain and maintain your team’s and others’ trust. 

Trust is often based on another’s perception of your competence and character. It’s important to recognize that trustworthiness is based on the perception of others, rather than facts you know to be true. For example, you may be highly qualified for your position because of your education and past roles. But, if your team members view you as incompetent, these facts won’t build trust. On the other hand, if you may lack competence on the job and regardless of your character, it may be difficult to build the trust of your team. Trust is earned through what you say and what you do.

In addition to doing your job well, these activities can help you with many or all of the character competencies:

  • Choose your words. Learn how your choice of words might unintentionally make a difficult conversation even more difficult.
  • Communicating with clarity. Learn how to adjust the intensity with which you communicate to improve your ability to clearly get your message across.


Your skills and achievements give your leadership greater legitimacy. When your employees understand what makes you qualified for your role, they’ll be more likely to trust you.

What it looks like:

  • My team members know how I came to be appointed to my current role in the organization.
  • My team members understand how my past experiences make me the right fit for my role. 
  • My team members know how I personally contribute to the success of our team.


If you want to improve, have that talk…

Tell your team members how you came to be in your position, including the challenges you faced along the way. Explain your vision of success for this team and what you’ll personally do to achieve it. Ask each team member to think about and report back how they already contribute to this vision.

Talk privately with new hires to bring them up to speed. Share your background and experience and invite them to ask any questions they may have. Continue to talk with your employees as your team, vision or desired results change.

You’re a credible leader when your team members believe you’re capable of supporting them to be successful in their jobs.


When you consistently speak and act according to your personal and organizational values, employees will be able to anticipate and trust your approach – even when you have to make tough choices and lead difficult conversations.

What it looks like:

  • My team members know my actions and behaviours are consistent with the values of the organization.
  • I make a point of explaining how my personal values guide my decision-making.
  • My team members know I communicate respectfully, even when I’m stressed.
  • My team members know I make tough choices fairly and with the greater good of the organization in mind. 


If you want to improve, have that talk…

A big factor in trustworthiness is modelling the behaviours you want your employees to exhibit. This is the concept of walking your talk. This can include not promising too much, saying what needs to be said, keeping personal information confidential and putting the team’s success before your own.

List the values of the organization and ask your team to discuss what work behaviours align with those values. Consider the extent to which you consistently display these behaviours. 

In addition, consider:

  • Facilitating the team building activity, Identify your values, and talking about how values influence our decision-making. Use yourself as an example as you share how your values influence your decision-making. 
  • Reviewing Choose your words and Communicating with clarity to explore if your employees are likely to perceive your intended message in the way you say it. 
  • Conducting the Implicit bias workshop with your team and admitting to your own implicit bias. Explain to your team that you never intend to be biased and you would be grateful for their feedback when you may unconsciously allow bias into your decisions. 

You have integrity as a leader when team members consistently see you model the behaviours you expect of them and consistently make fair and transparent decisions.

Trust in others

When you show others trust, they’re much more likely to feel respected and trust you in return. 

What it looks like:

  • I know my team has my back, just as I have theirs, even in challenging situations.
  • My team members and employees know I believe in them because my words and actions demonstrate this.
  • I avoid micro-managing because I ensure my team has the knowledge, skills and resources to get the job done. 


If you want to improve, have that talk…

Explain to your team that, while you’re responsible for supporting their success on the job, you’ll start from a position of trust once you both agree they have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to get the job done. As challenges arise, you’ll come together to work on solutions.

You may also want to add that, if any team member is feeling you don’t trust them, they should discuss this with you. Whatever you’re saying or doing that makes them feel you don’t trust them may have nothing to do with them, but the discussion will help you understand your unintended impact on others. For example, if an employee asks to take on a project and you say, “No, someone else is taking on the project,” they may feel like you don’t trust them to get it done. In reality, you may have given the project to someone else with more time or needs the experience. It may have nothing to do with trust.

By learning when your employees feel you don’t trust them, you can adjust your actions or clarify your decision-making process.

You show trust in others as a leader when you avoid micro-managing and express your belief in your employees’ abilities. Of course, this can’t happen until you provide each team member with the knowledge, skills and resources they need to do their job successfully. 

Supportive mindset

When your team members believe you’ll support their success on the job, they’ll be much more likely to trust your leadership.

What it looks like:

  • My team knows I’ll make time for them when they have questions or need support.
  • My team knows I’ll advocate for them to have the resources and training they need to do their job.
  • My team understands that our collective success comes before my own career ambitions.


If you want to improve, have that talk…

Explain to your team members that your responsibility is to support each of them to be successful at work. Ask them to take the time to write out at least 3 ways you could better support their job success. Be clear that you’ll do your best to find solutions within your budget and authority limitations. Set up times to review each team member’s list privately and discuss potential solutions.

For employees who have more complex needs, consider using the Supporting employee success tool.

You have a supportive mindset as a leader when your employees trust you to support their well-being and success on the job.


When you’re clear about the limits of your knowledge and skills, you show your team that you’re self-aware and don’t pretend to have all the answers. This encourages them to bring their knowledge, expertise and unique talents to the table. When you’re comfortable asking for help, your team members will feel safe asking for help when they need it.

What it looks like:

  • My team members feel safe giving me constructive feedback because they ask important questions, share alternative ideas and tell me when they don’t agree.
  • When I don’t know something, or a subject falls outside of my area of expertise, I say so and help find someone with more knowledge.
  • When I get feedback from my team, I try to integrate it into my work.
  • My team feels valued because I openly recognize their contributions and give credit where credit is due.


If you want to improve, have that talk…

Set the right conditions for your team to feel safe by being clear about what your strengths are, as well as how you’re going to lean on them to fill the gaps in your own knowledge and expertise. Acknowledge where their expertise surpasses yours and credit them for their knowledge. Let them know you’re open for input and feedback, as well as constructive criticism, about what you can do better or differently. Offer to accept feedback by email, chat message, anonymously or face-to-face. Show them you don’t have all the answers by asking for help when you need it and share credit when they rise to the occasion.

In addition, consider:

You have humility as a leader when you show confident vulnerability. Confident vulnerability means that you’re aware of your weaknesses and what you don’t know. You’re comfortable with this and open to valuing and leveraging the expertise and skills of others. Your confidence comes from knowing that you’re still able, with the help of others, to tackle any challenge.


By communicating the expectations you have for yourself and taking responsibility when things don’t go as planned or when mistakes happen, you show your employees accountability. 

What it looks like:

  • My team members understand how I’ll be held accountable for my responsibilities.
  • My team members see that I own up to my mistakes and take action to correct them.
  • My team members know I’ll respectfully hold each of them accountable for their responsibilities and interactions.


If you want to improve, have that talk…

Be specific with your team about which responsibilities you’re accountable for, like sharing information, supporting their success or providing resources, equipment and training. Discuss how you’ll measure success and hold yourself accountable to them. When mistakes happen or plans don’t go right, don’t wait for your employees to find out. Be open and honest about what went wrong. Let them know how you’re going to make things right or solve the problem. Ask your team members for their input and openly discuss lessons learned so that everyone can benefit from the learning opportunity.

You show accountability as a leader when you’re open and honest about your mistakes and take responsibility for them.


Being open and communicating your knowledge helps employees feel secure and psychologically safe to trust – even in the midst of change and uncertainty. It means you don’t have a hidden agenda and are open and authentic in what you say and do. Your team members also understand that you’re required to keep things confidential at times, and they can trust you to do so. 

What it looks like:

  • I share important information that could impact my team members in a timely manner.
  • My team members know I keep information confidential when it’s not mine to share.
  • My team members trust me to share information and feedback, even when it may be hard for them to hear.

If you want to improve, have that talk…

Make time to regularly communicate organizational and departmental decisions and how they may impact your team. If you have information that impacts an employee’s job, share what you know and keep them updated. Let them know you’re there to answer questions and make time to answer them, particularly in times of uncertainty and change. Transparency shuts down conjecture, gossip and other negative or unsafe behaviour promptly.

Sometimes staff may come to you with personal issues, or requests for medical or other accommodations – make sure they know if you’re required to share the information with other people and ask for permission.

Transparency is not the same as brutal or unfiltered honesty. Where performance management is concerned, it’s always best to keep an ongoing dialogue that is open, non-judgmental and constructive.

You’re transparent as a leader when employees trust you to keep them informed.


Build rapport and break down defensiveness by approaching situations with the intention of understand others’ perspectives. This can open up honest conversation and keep the focus on finding solutions rather than assigning blame. 

What it looks like:

  •  My team members feel safe sharing how they feel with me, even when they’re having challenges.
  • My team members know I’ll listen to their perspectives rather than jump to conclusions or blame them when things don’t go right. 
  • I’m able to stay curious and listen without judgment when my employees come to me with challenges.
  • When I feel like a team member is being difficult, I take the time to understand their perspective.

If you want to improve, have that talk…

By showing support when your employees are struggling and taking the time to get to know what’s important to them and where they’re coming from, you can build trust. You may find you’re less likely to jump to conclusions if you can Distinguish acknowledgement from agreement in your response. This means you can have empathy for someone’s perspective without necessarily agreeing with it.

When employees aren’t performing or behaving as expected, stay open to what might be going on for them. Step back to understand their perspective. Stay curious until you get to the bottom of the issue. Be mindful of your biases and assumptions in your response.

Employees feel safe to speak up and share how they feel with an empathetic leader who takes the time to understand their perspective. Review Listening to understand for leaders if you'd like more help in this area.


By sticking to your word and being consistent in your behaviour and responses to challenging situations, your employees will know what to expect of you. This can build trust.

What it looks like:

  •  My team members know I do what I say I’ll do.
  • My team members can predict how I’ll react and respond in most situations.
  • My team members know they can count on me to remain level-headed in a crisis.

If you want to improve, have that talk…

Let your employees know what they can expect of you – do what you say you’ll do. It’s not always easy to do this consistently, but let them know this is your intention. Acknowledge when you’ve fallen short. If you’re late for a meeting, let your team know that you respect their time before you explain why you were late. If you aren’t able to deliver something to your team on time because of competing demands, let them know what they can expect from you right now.

If you’re inconsistent on following through, be honest with your team about why and how you’re working to improve. Seek their support in helping you with your strategy.

Let your team know your intentions and values behind your responses and learn strategies for self-management. If you struggle with staying calm in a crisis or communicating respectfully when under stress, explain this to your team. Discuss with them how you’re striving to do better. You may want to ask for a gentle reminder when they witness your frustration or stress.

You’re reliable as a leader when employees know what they can expect of you, and you consistently do what you say you’ll do. 


When your employees believe that your motives are always to support the greater good of the team or organization, they may disagree with your decisions, but acknowledge that you’re sincerely trying to do the right thing. Sincere leaders are truthful about their own shortcomings. They don’t lie or sugarcoat the truth. They speak in a straightforward and clear manner without oversharing. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, says, “Next time people say be yourself, stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.” 

What it looks like:

  • My team members know I always strive to do the right thing.
  • My team members know I’m honest and straightforward.
  • My team members know I consistently work on my shortcomings.

If you want to improve, have that talk…

Let your team know that you’ll strive to always be honest and straightforward with them, even with difficult information. Explain your decision-making so they understand how you believe you’re trying to do the right thing for the good of the team. Be candid about your work-related challenges and shortcomings. Share how you manage and overcome these obstacles. Balance your responsibilities as a leader with building connections with your team on a more human, vulnerable level.

You show sincerity when your employees believe you’re doing things for the right reasons, even when they disagree with your decisions.

Have a growth mindset

A growth mindset means you’re open to learning and growing. Part of this is trusting in yourself to take a risk or make a mistake. If you don’t trust yourself, others will be less likely to trust you. 

What it looks like:

  • I see challenges as opportunities.
  • I welcome negative feedback, as it may have something to teach me. 
  • I choose to learn and grow from my mistakes or failures.

If you want to improve, have that talk…

There are many free resources that can help you build your self-confidence:

When you need to have a difficult conversation with your team about trust, lean into the competencies above and be prepared to listen deeply, ask questions and stay curious rather than responding right away. Repeat what you hear, clarify the issues and take your time in responding.

It may not be easy, and you may feel defensive at times – that’s okay. If you need to take a breather to stop yourself from responding defensively, say so and set another time to follow-up. Although trust can be lost in an instant, it can’t be built in a day. Let your team know you’re committed to earning their trust and that you’ll continue the conversation another time.

You don’t have to be a pushover to be trustworthy

Good leadership requires you to set expectations, hold yourself and others accountable and support the success of every team member. You’ll have to set boundaries, have difficult conversations about performance and say “no” to some requests. That’s okay. By developing the core competencies of trustworthiness, you’ll be better equipped to make decisions that serve your team’s greater good and increase your employees’ confidence in your leadership. 

Workshop materials

Building trust workshop

This workshop is for those who manage, support or lead employees. In this workshop, you'll learn to build trust and support employee success.


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Contributors include.articlesAlex Kollo Coaching and ToolsMary Ann Baynton

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