How to be trustworthy

Trust: The stuff of great leadership teams

Trust: The stuff of great leadership teams

It was 12 noon on the first morning of our two days together. My colleague and I invited the Executive Team to consider the qualities and behaviours that would help their conversations be successful in their work together. The stakes were high – complex expectations from multiple stakeholders, and tough delivery targets. In this workshop, there was an opportunity to ‘clear the decks’ and refocus. Here, they could ‘slow down to speed up’.

Running somewhat against accepted development wisdom, we had waited until later in the first morning to hold this conversation. Waiting helps the team start to understand the rules they need. Our experience is that even in the first two hours, they will have become much more aware of what they need from each other to feel sufficiently safe in order to talk and progress. So as with others teams before, instead of ‘going through the motions’ the conversation moved to trust – what it meant to them, how you build it, whether it was present in their team. They were striking at the nub of what often causes teams to flounder – a lack of trust.

So what is trust? How can one be trustworthy in a leadership team?

Although studied quite a bit by academics, the literature can appear fractured on what trust is, how it can be built and how it can contribute to sustainable performance. Yet there are common threads that are useful to us, and some clear messages on how to be trustworthy as a member of a team.

What is trust?

I would define trust as a belief, present in a relationship, that another is:

  • Dependable – that they will keep promises
  • Competent – that they have the skill and experience required
  • Discrete – that they will not betray confidences
  • Caring – that they genuinely care for you and your interests

An example: My recent visit to Accident & Emergency (A&E)

I was recently treated by a doctor for a broken nose, which I sustained in a Tae Kwon Do sparring session. Let’s look at the doctor who treated me, and how she built trust with me, which enabled her to do her job.

  • Dependability: I arrive in A&E (or the ER if reading this in the US) with the broken nose. I am seen by the doctor. The break means that I need specialist attention, and the doctor says that she will need to check on a consultant’s availability to perform a procedure. She returns five minutes later with details of where to go and who to ask for. She has won on dependability – not only was she a doctor in A&E who could diagnose the condition, and not only did she return, but she came back with specific instructions as she said she would.
  • Competence: The doctor displays medical competence: she diagnoses my condition quickly by herself and importantly says that she was unable to perform the important procedure but that it was necessary; she also says ‘you need it done within the next few hours’. I do not yet trust her to perform quadruple bypass surgery on me, but I absolutely trust her judgment on my nose.
  • Discretion: As she works, she asks about my family, my interest in sparring, about my work as a psychologist and why I like it. In turn, I ask similar questions of her. The more I share, the more I feel comfortable with her prodding and talking. I share because she asks questions in a way that makes me feel I have choice in what I share. I feel confident that she will not gossip. The initial gap between us begins to close and as a result, she can work; and I can get my diagnosis.
  • Care: By her actions, she shows she genuinely does care – beyond just doing her job, and despite the pressures in such an environment.

How might you build trust in a team, therefore?

From the example above, here are some ideas:


  • Describe in a clear way what you will do and when you will do it by.
  • Be clear about what you will not do – this may be more difficult but just as important.
  • Be realistic and ensure you can and do deliver – this displays beyond doubt that you can be trusted.


  • Share the skills and experiences you can bring, and be honest about tasks you know or sense are beyond you at that time.
  • Ask for help if you get stuck, even if you have made a commitment to deliver alone. This shows you care about the outcome, but also that you can be a bit vulnerable; this disclosure encourages others to do the same.


  • Share a little about yourself that displays what and who you care about.
  • Think about the purpose you have in your work, what is important to you about what you do. This uncovers your values and intentions.
  • Share with your team members, what you see as your role in the team and why it is important to you.
  • Avoid gossip or being roped into disclosing information shared in confidence.

Care for your team colleagues

  • Proactively offer your support to your colleagues – and not just when you need something directly in return. This carries with it an intrinsic reward – it will make you feel better and others will appreciate it.

A final word

Trust is something that is built over time, so patience is required if you are really keen on building lasting trust. Take the care that is needed and your team will flourish.

References and a quote from the journal article:

Dirks, K.T. (1999) The effects of interpersonal trust on workgroup performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. 84. 3. 445-455. “Most operational definitions examine trust as a belief about whether a partner is dependable (e.g., McAllister, 1995), cares for your interests (e.g., Cook & Wall, 1980), is competent (e.g., Mishra, 1993), and/or will act with integrity (e.g., Robinson, 1996)”