How Do I Gain Trust as a Leader?

Friday, April 24, 2015


Today there is more complexity and uncertainty in the workplace than ever before. Leadership styles based on commanding—power and fear—are not effective. Instead, managers must adopt a leadership approach that builds trust between the leader and those being led.

Leadership is not a personal quality, but a result of one’s influence on others. Healthy leadership requires that one’s emotions and rational mind cooperate, working together like an authentic team.

Developing effective leadership requires individualized work. Rather than learning how to fit a certain style of leadership, a manager must build his own way. My recently published ATD Press book, Leaders Don’t Command, provides conceptual and practical tools for trust-filled team leadership in today’s workplace.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Leaders Don’t Command:

However important you think what you are proposing may be for the team, you will never generate a leadership relationship without first establishing a base of trust. If you have that trust, what you say will not be valued in the same way as if you didn’t. The question, then, is how do you create that trust?

Obviously, there is a trust that comes from shared experience, if they have seen you act in similar situations and the group has gotten a good feeling from them that would be considered worthy of trust. You would have achieved an a posteriori trust. Notice that however unfair it may seem trust will be based more on the emotional residue that the acts left behind, than on the objective acts themselves.


In management, we often see ourselves in situations that require the trust of the group without having been able to gain it through shared experience. This is very common, for example, when:

  • The group doesn’t really know you because you’re new to the team and, despite this, your bosses are already expecting miracles.
  • The group perceives the situation as something completely new to you and feels that prior experience is meaningless.
  • Your role has changed recently and you haven’t yet been accepted by the organization. For example, after a recent promotion, your old colleagues still view you as a peer.

In these situations we need another type of trust, referred to as a priori, and that, unlike the previous type, should come from expectations we should be able to create.
OK, so how do I go about gaining a priori trust?

A priori trust comes from your ability to create and communicate believable expectations that minimize uncertainty. For people to do things, we first have to want to do them (attitude) and even before that, we have to believe that they’re possible—or better still, desirable. Otherwise, we will not move or allow ourselves to be moved easily!

“Yes, we can!” The motto that drove Barack Obama to the White House was hope! Hope is incredibly powerful and can be used to motivate and demotivate. It’s a secret weapon of leadership and an essential result of positive expectations.

Imagine you have hope readily available. How will you get them to buy into it? Let’s look at an example.


Here is a very common, real-life situation for any middle manager: You receive instructions to take charge of a team that faces some complicated task with very few resources and you decide on a course of action that you have trouble understanding clearly. Being the good professional, you take on the challenge responsibly and in good spirits. You are ready to make use of the communication techniques the company has given you in the workshops they’ve been organizing. You prepare yourself and carefully construct your message, but you can’t get completely comfortable with it, even though you know it’s what you have to say. You arm yourself with courage and go at it with energy and vigor.

To your surprise, the team is immediately defensive. They aggressively focus on the difficulties and only half listen to the goodies that you have so ably offered them. “That’s strange. They don’t usually do this,” you tell your-self. It’s as if they could smell the doubt you were holding back.

You start to feel insincere and realize you’re achieving the opposite of what you wanted. This is not going well. Quick! Do something! With your trademark vigor, you spring back and end up righting the ship by, as you would put it, “cutting the crap.” You quickly rifle off a series of instructions that immediately gets everyone into gear. You are not achieving leadership. You are acting like a boss: You have gotten them working, but not wanting to work.

Later, when you’ve calmed down, you reflect—some managers still do this—and you realize that your team read every internal doubt you were trying to keep from them. You realize that if you do not believe in what you do, your team will pick up on it to the point where you may get the opposite of what you were looking for. Emotions travel at incredible speeds between individuals through nonverbal communication, which, according to some experts, accounts for 80 percent of all communication.

So it seems that in order to lead, you either do what you believe in or you learn to believe in what you’re doing. In other words, to lead a project, you either believe in it outright or you find new ways of seeing it that allow you to believe in it. Finding these perspectives is fundamental to creating the key element of leadership that we call vision.

For more on trust-building, hope, and emotional intelligence in leadership, check out Jorge’s book, Leaders Don’t Command.

About the Author

Jorge Cuervo (born 1959), has a degree in pharmaceutical sciences and an MBA from ESADE; he is also certified in strategic planning, has a CPCC coaching certificate from CTI, a PCC coaching certification from ICF, graduated in ORSC Coaching for Relational Systems from CRR, and is certified by the Leadership Circle Profile. For nearly 20 years, he has held marketing and sales management positions in multinational companies. Since 2001, he has been a consultant and trainer specializing in team organization, leadership and change management. He has been an executive coach and team coach since 2007, working with national and international companies.  He is also a professor of leadership and change management at Barcelona Activa. He contributes to training and postgraduate programs at various universities and chambers of commerce. He has developed unique approaches that combine training and coaching techniques to offer his students resources that more effectively apply on a personal level.  His website is  

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