Is Trust an Essential Leadership Behavior?

Sweeney, et al, in Trust and Influence in Combat, are making a case for a correlation between the level of trust subordinates have in their leaders and the amount of leadership influence they will accept. Most leaders today probably accept the fact that a significant part of their role is the ability to influence others. Citing a number of authors and researchers, Sweeney, et at, conclude that the leadership literature up to 2009 would view trust as “an important outcome of leader behaviors, but not critical to the exercise of influence” (p. 240). This study, then, was designed to show that “trust is necessary and essential to the exercise of influence beyond compliance”.

I like the use of the word “compliance”. In our work we do all we can to help team leaders move the behaviors of those they lead from compliance to commitment. And, we show them how important relationships are in that endeavor. It doesn’t take much convincing for people to see this link. We have not, however, been making the case for the importance of trust in these relationships. And this is where I see my current study of trust taking me.

Back to the word “influence”. We are an authorized partner of Everything DiSC® - a new division of John Wiley & Sons. (They purchased Inscape Publishing last year). A recent Wiley book, The Work of Leaders, and a companion profile originally published by Inscape, The Work of Leaders, is based on significant research which resulted in an elegant model of the real work of leaders - crafting a Vision, building Alignment, & championing Execution. When we first introduced this model to a group of leaders running small businesses in our area, they quickly gravitated to discussing alignment. It seemed that once the vision was clear to these leaders they really struggled with turning it into something others would follow. Sound like a problem with leadership influence to you? it does to me. So, once again, this study spoke to me. I’ll end this post with one more quote; this time from page 250:

“First, and most importantly, the study found that the level of followers’ trust in a leader was highly predictive of their willingness to accept the leader’s influence regarding motivation to become better group members, strive for excellence, or improve as a person. This is an important finding because it provides empirical evidence to support the link between the trust-development process and the influence process, as hypothesized.”

And, I might add, the link between trust and alignment with a vision.

Trust and Organizational Structure

Sweeny, et al, in Trust and Influence in Combat, point to the impact of organizational structure on an Army leader’s effort to instill trust in those he or she leads. The factors in such an organizational structure could be regulations, cultural norms, and standard operating procedures. They say adding the factor of organizational structure broadens the scope of any model of trust due to its impact on “influencing leaders to behave in a trustworthy manner” (p. 240). In the Army there is an explicit norm that expects leaders to “promote and protect the welfare of their soldiers”. During my years as an aircraft commander in the Air National Guard I experienced that sense of obligation and it is easy to see how this will play out in environments where leadership has a life or death potential. But what about the more mundane world many of us work in?

This notion of organizational structure is also alluded to in Lencioni’s work (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) as the development of group norms. And there are a multitude of studies in social psychology focusing on group norms. As an example - “Group Norms and the Attitude-Behavior Relationship”. I must admit that organizational structure had not been on my list of factors influencing the development of trust on a team although during our many years of working with teams using our Team Checkup we always began with the creation of behavioral ground rules or agreements for acceptable team behavior. And these, of course, are team norms that are part of “organizational structure”. But they are not as structured as that referenced in Sweeny’s article. The military makes it imperative that leaders are trustworthy. I now wonder if other organizations do this.

Trust as Vulnerability

I recently came across a study on Trust and Influence in Combat published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2009 (Vol 1, pp 235-264) . There are a number of interesting points which caught my eye so I will use my next few posts to delve into them.

For this study the authors, Patrick Sweeney, Vaida Thompson, and Hart Blanton, use a definition of trust in an organizational setting which was proposed by Morton Deutsch in 1958 - one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another group member’s actions.

Trust as vulnerability struck me as being a very practical definition since we often see signs of mistrust on teams such as withholding information or lack of engagement in fulfilling the goals of the team. It seems to me that these team members would be more open and engaged if they were comfortable with being vulnerable with either the team leader or other team members or both. Sweeney, et al, suggest that in such a case the team member may not be confident that the team leader or other team member will behave cooperatively and that they feel no real measure of interdependence within the team. They reference work by Kelley and Thibaut which stresses the need for “developing trust through a reciprocating cycle in which each partner in a relationship acts to reduce the other’s fear of exploitation and to show that the relationship will be rewarding.”

Our firm is presently participating in a beta test of an instrument which will operationalize the concepts in Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Trust is the foundational behavior in his model and his attention to vulnerability seems to mirror Deutsch’s definition.

Lencioni addresses vulnerability as a willingness to be open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses. Obviously, if you do this you are opening yourself up to a series of actions by others on the team. Their responses to you will most likely be a part of the “reciprocating cycle” which either develops or destroys trust. If they are accepting and supportive you will probably risk more in the future and increase your vulnerability. If they are not, you will probably be less open in the future.

Once again I am seeing a key element of the DISC model I am researching - ACCEPTANCE. Personally I will be much more likely to be OPEN with my feelings as well as my mistakes and weaknesses if I know others will accept me with all of these limitations. I will also tend to be more STAIGHTFORWARD with others if I know they are willing to vulnerable as well.

The Social Context of Trust

Sartre pointed out that we humans are "first of all beings in a situation. We cannot be distinguished from our situations, for they form us and decide our possibilities."

As I look at trust in the workplace I am reminded by this quote that context will be very important. We often think our behaviors are fairly stable. We know who we are and we act consistently, especially in team settings. The problem is that our intentions are not always the actual behavior seen by those around us and, furthermore, our behavior in one situation may be altered in another similar one where the context is different.

Philip Zimbardo, in the now famous Stanford Prison Experiment, tested his situational hypothesis and proved the power of a situation. Think of this as the power of a role. Using a theatre metaphor, our behavior can be strongly influenced by our audience, our costume, the director, a stage manager, and the role itself. On a team the audience would be the other team members, the costume might be a uniform, the director could be a higher level manager, the stage manager a customer, and the role created by social norms or company policy.

So what does this have to do with trust in the workplace? If trust can be defined by the behavioral components of straightforwardness, openness, acceptance, and reliability then my use of any of these behaviors might be altered by the situation. I might work very hard to develop all four of these in my relationships but find myself either acting contrary to one or more or being perceived by my audience as doing so as they filter my behavior through the context in which we both exist at the moment.

Virtual Teams: Extra Challenge

I just came across what looks to be a good resource on virtual teams. We will be leading a discussion on that topic next week and this got me thinking about the extra challenge virtual teams will bring to building trust. Since trust is all about relationships,going virtual adds a new dimension to the practice. Communication will need special attention since there are few if any visual cues in many virtual teams.

Here is the resource I found:

Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques That Succeed, 3rd Edition, Revised and Expanded

Deborah L. Duarte, Nancy Tennant Snyder


The Impact of Culture on Trust

I am currently in the last stage of a 360 feedback project with a new client organization.  Because the leader of the organization had participated in a similar project at his previous organization I felt he could manage the communication for the project and create a culture where trust was strong enough to provide honest feedback to the subjects of the project.  I was wrong.  

After a number of the respondents contacted me with conerns, it became obvious that I should have taken more control of the project.  360 feedback only works well when the subjects are open to receiving feedback and the raters are trusting the process enough to be straightforward in their comments and ratings.  When someone is concerned that the IT department will be able to use their password to look at the ratings and that honest feedback may result in retribution, the validity of the project is in question.

I bring this up because it hightens the need to pay attention to culture.  A colleague has pointed out to me that culture eats strategy every time. And where does culture come from?  It comes from human behavior played out on a daily basis.  Hence, my search for a simple model of behavior that can be applied by anyone every day to build trust in a work group.

The DiSC model is what we use in our work to enhance teamwork and to build basic leadership skills. Since organizations have a behavioral culture created by whichever style is predominent, it makes sense to consider this impact on trust.

In the DiSC Culture Report provided by Inscape Publishing I find these gems which point to the four trust behaviors I have been exploring:

* The "D" culture gives trust to those who are direct and straightforward;

* The "i" culture gives trust to those who are open and expressive;

* The "S" culture give trust to those who are sincere and considerate;

* The "C" culture requires that trust be earned.

D - Straightforward; i - Open; S - Accepting; C - Reliable.  Not exact, but very close.

If you are not familiar with the DiSC Model you can find basic information on our website at this link -

Digging into books on the topic of trust

I have begun collecting books that have been written on the topic of trust and I'm very surprised at how few there seem to be.  Most other subjects we follow in our work - e.g. Leadership, Engagement, Teambuilding, etc. - have hundreds, if not thousands of books to review.  Many of the concepts we have built into our training and coaching sessions have come from the works of other authors.  So why are there so few on the topic of trust?  That might be something I will discover during this journey.

Here is a list of books on my shelf in order of publication date:

1978: Trust - Jack R. Gibb

1990: Trust Me - William J. Morin

1994: The Trust Factor - John O. Whitney

1998: Building Trust: A Manager's Guide For Business Success - Mary Galbreath Shurtleff

2000: Building Trust at the Speed of Change - Edward M. Marshall

2001: Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life - Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores

2002: Building Trust: How to Get It! How to Keep It! - Hyler Bracey, PhD

2002: The Trusted Leader - Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau

2003: How Could You? Kids Talk About Trust - Nancy Loewen

2006: Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace - Dennis S. Reina, PhD and Michelle L. Reina, PhD

2006: The Speed of Trust - Stephen M.R. Covey

2009: The Thin Book of Trust

2009: The Truth About Trust in Business - Vanessa Hall

2011: A slice of Trust - David Hutchens and Barry Rellaford

In addition to the books, I am collecting articles found on the web.  Not a very big bibliography so far.  I "trust" it will grow over time.  If you know of a book I have missed, or an article that would help, please let me know.

I will also post other blogs I find and have started curating with the help of Scoop It!


First Look at The Elements of Trust

I guess the first time I was introduced to the behavioral aspects of Trust was at a conference of Carlson Learning Company distributors in 1994 - at least that is the date of the first recording of the trust model I could find.

A consultant by the name of Johan Cronje from South Africa was presenting a session on team building in which he outlined a trust model which could be very closely correlated with the DiSC model of behavior. The model he showed us was originally developed by a firm named Integro and he referenced a man by the name of Jack Gibbs.  I have since located a book on trust by Jack Gibbs but he doesn't present the model in that book.

The basic concept as it relates to trust on a team is that the four behaviors: Congruence (Straightforwardness), Openness, Acceptance, and Reliabiity all have to be present in order for team members to trust each other. Using DiSC we are able to identify which of these behaviors will be natural for us to exhibit and which will take more intention on our part.

The four behaviors were summarized this way:

Straightforwardness - exhibited by those with strong D tendencies

  • Adequate confrontation
  • Method of conflict resolution
  • Team self-discipline
  • Adequate analysis of error
  • Lack of "hidden agendas"
  • Clarifying expectations
  • Clarifying intentions

Openness - exhibited by those with strong i tendencies

  • Adequate access to others
  • Adequate meetings: frequency and quality
  • Keeping involved people informed
  • Telling people more than they need to know
  • Not having secrets
  • Giving people an overview of the larger picture
  • Telling feelings as well as data
  • Giving and asking feedback 

Acceptance - exhibited by those with strong S tendencies

  • Mutual respect for roles and expertise
  • Respect for differences (ideas, values, lifestyles)
  • Leadership rotates to the task competent
  • Members have input into decisions
  • People listen to each other
  • Allow errors
  • Allow logic and emotion/feeling to be expressed

Reliability - exhibited by those with strong C tendencies

  • Consistent consequences - rewards and punishments
  • Meeting commitments
  • Support when you need it
  • Taking responsibility for actions and decisions
  • Adequate rituals - e.g. celebration, mourning, greeting/departure, etc.
  • Team loyalty
  • Being punctual

I have been intrigued by this approach ever since hearing that presentation. A major inquiry during my examination of the story of trust will be to find out how true this model is in everyday life and, if it is, how we can use it in building more effective relatioships.