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ATD Blog

Trust, Communication, and Leadership: The Three Laws of Influence


Tue Apr 09 2013


Leaders in all walks of life want to be trusted. However, while some leaders naturally excel at creating trust in their ranks, others never feel at ease with it. With few substantive guides available in business literature, the topic remains ambiguous for many.

The more I study trust, from an interpersonal and organizational standpoint, the more I see a deep connection between trust and communication. In fact, I often refer to trust, communication, and leadership as the three-legged stool of modern business.


As you’ll notice in the headline, communication falls between trust and leadership, and that’s very intentional. Communication is the thread that enables leaders to create a culture of trust within their organization.  Once trust is established, leaders can achieve their goals more effectively and efficiently with the full faith and support of their team.

Today, organizations are built on trust.

Reflect back on management practices only 20 years ago. How many leaders felt they needed to engender trust in order to motivate their teams? The answer is: very few.  Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant and author who coined the term, “knowledge worker,” explained the evolving role of trust in modern business:

“Organizations are no longer built on force but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not necessarily mean that they like each other. It means they understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity. It is a duty.”

Mr. Drucker’s point is that many of us have specialized tasks and responsibilities within an organization, and the only way to collaborate effectively is to understand each other, which is the core of trust. We learn to understand each other through communication, specifically, by asking questions and listening thoughtfully to the answer.


Therefore, leaders need to adopt the practice of asking more questions in order to appreciate the mindset of individual team members. Again, I quote Mr. Drucker:

“The first secret of effectiveness is to understand the people you work with so that you can make use of their strengths. “

Using communication to lead with trust.

In June of 2011, the International Journal of Business and Management included an article entitled, "Communication, Commitment, and Trust: Exploring the Triad," by Rachid Zeffane, Syed Tipu, and James C. Ryan.

This research paper reviewed previous studies on these topics along with data from a survey of 244 employees at a medium-sized company based in Australia. Their findings revealed “that trust and commitment do not just happen; they are forged and maintained through effective communication.”


This research provides some excellent evidence-based pointers for managers who want to understand how communication affects trust and engagement. Following are four valuable highlights:

  1. Perception of effective communication with senior management has one of the strongest effects on a company’s trust climate.

  2. When communication channels begin to deteriorate, misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound and a climate of mistrust sets in.

  3. Managers' ability to listen, communicate clearly, and lead had the strongest effect on employees’ organizational commitment.

  4. To promote and build positive trust relationships, senior managers must communicate as honestly and directly as possible with their employees, particularly during uncertain times.

This last point references a topic that I study and write about often: the role of uncertainty in business. Whether it’s the future of the European Union or our own political wrangling here in the U.S., one commonality is we are living in a period of ongoing uncertainty. While Warren Buffet said in his most recent letter to shareholders that uncertainty provides excellent investment opportunities, many people find it troubling.  

Building trust, therefore, is more essential than ever for today’s leaders. Communication, the tool we use each day to build rapport and understanding with everyone in our lives, is also the tool for cultivating trust. By mastering the nuances of communication, we are able to excel in the role of trusted leader.

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