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Building Trust as a Leader: The Importance of Positive Relationships, Consistency, and Good Judgment



Trust is a critical component of effective leadership. When employees trust their leader, they are more engaged, productive, and committed to the organization's success. However, establishing trust can be challenging, especially for new leaders or those who have damaged relationships in the past. According to recent research, there are three key elements that leaders should focus on to build trust: positive relationships, consistency, and good judgment/expertise.


Today we will provide an overview of why trust matters in leadership, summarize the key findings from the research on the 3 elements of trust, and expound on each element by providing detailed examples and recommendations for leaders. Building trust requires ongoing effort, self-awareness, and commitment to modeling the 3 elements of trust in daily interactions and decisions. When leaders embody positive relationships, consistency, and good judgment, they create the foundation for a thriving, high-trust organization.


The Importance of Trust in Leadership


Before examining the specific ways leaders can build trust, it is essential to understand why trust matters so much in leadership. Trust is the foundation on which effective leadership is built, enabling collaboration, engagement, and organizational success. When trust is present, employees feel confident in their leader's competence, character, and ability to make sound decisions. They are more willing to take risks, be vulnerable, and share ideas. High-trust organizations see greater innovation, better execution, and more engaged cultures. Leaders who have the trust of their employees are able to inspire others to achieve ambitious goals.


Distrust has the opposite effect. Leaders who lack trust breed fear and uncertainty in their employees. Without trust, people disengage, become reluctant to take risks, and focus more on self-preservation than the good of the organization. Distrust often stems from inconsistent behavior, poor judgment, broken promises, and damaged relationships. Rebuilding trust once it has been lost is a major undertaking, requiring sincere effort and changed behavior over an extended time. That is why it is so vital for leaders to intentionally build a culture of trust from the outset through positive relationships, consistency, and good judgment.


The 3 Elements of Trust


Recent research aimed to identify the key drivers of trust in leadership by analyzing over 80,000 360-degree reviews of leaders. The findings revealed three elements that most directly impact how much a leader is trusted by employees:

  1. Positive Relationships

  2. Consistency

  3. Good Judgment/Expertise

Leaders who were rated highly on all three qualities were much more likely to be trusted by their direct reports, peers, and other colleagues. Of the three elements, positive relationships had the greatest impact on overall trust and appeared to be foundational to the other two. When positive relationships were lacking, leader trust suffered most severely. Each of the elements contributes to building a culture of trust and should be fostered intentionally by leaders.


The remainder of this article will explore each of the 3 elements of trust in detail, providing examples and recommendations for how leaders can practically apply them.


Positive Relationships


The research found that positive relationships were the most important driver of overall leader trust. Employees are far more likely to trust leaders who have taken the time to establish positive, interpersonal relationships with them. Positive relationships are built through honest, open communication, actively listening, and taking a genuine interest in employees' lives and development.


Leaders who foster positive relationships:

  • Make time for 1-on-1 meetings to understand employees' needs, goals, and concerns

  • Express care and interest in employees' lives beyond the workplace

  • Provide support during difficult times and challenges

  • Give emotional support and encouragement

  • Communicate openly and transparently about organizational issues and decisions

  • Admit mistakes sincerely without blaming others

  • Listen attentively without interrupting or judging

Examples of ways leaders can build positive relationships include:

  • Starting meetings with personal check-ins

  • Celebrating milestones in employees' lives like birthdays, marriages, or births

  • Handwriting notes of encouragement or appreciation

  • Making time for informal conversations before/after meetings

  • Sharing meals together

  • Volunteering together at charity events

  • Remembering personal details employees have shared

Fostering positive relationships requires dedication and ongoing effort, but pays off exponentially in increased trust. Employees know immediately if a leader's interest in their well-being is genuine or not. Leaders must be sincere and consistent in cultivating positive relationships.


Consistency


In addition to positive relationships, leaders also build trust through consistency. Employees trust leaders who are dependable, stick to clear values, and followthrough consistently on promises. Consistency requires leaders to align their words with actions and avoid unpredictable or erratic behavior.


Ways leaders can demonstrate consistency:

  • Set clear expectations and stick to them

  • Establish and uphold organizational values

  • Follow through on commitments reliably

  • Make well-informed decisions aligned to goals and priorities

  • Maintain composure during times of stress

  • Behave according to a clear set of ethical standards

  • Align words to actions - do what you say you will do

  • Ensure accountability and fairness - no favoritism

  • Be transparent about decision-making processes

Examples of consistent leadership behavior:

  • Publishing a clear set of team goals at the start of a project and reporting regularly on progress

  • Having a well-defined decision-making process for new ideas that is applied consistently

  • Responding calmly and promptly during a crisis without overreacting

  • Following through on a promise to investigate an employee's concern by the promised deadline

  • Refusing to bend stated policies for one individual that would not apply to others

Leaders must examine their own behavior honestly to identify inconsistencies and seek feedback from others when needed. Staying disciplined under pressure is critical to maintaining consistency. While adaptability and flexibility are also important leadership qualities, they should not come at the expense of needed consistency. Employees trust leaders most when they know what to expect.


Good Judgment/Expertise


In addition to relationships and consistency, the research indicated that leaders who demonstrate good judgment and expertise inspire higher trust. Employees rely on leaders who possess sound wisdom and demonstrate expertise in their roles. Good judgment enables leaders to assess situations astutely and make wise, data-driven decisions. Expertise results from strong capabilities, experience, and competence in a leader's field.


Ways leaders exhibit good judgment:

  • Thinking critically to avoid rushed, overly emotional, or biased decisions

  • Considering multiple perspectives and identifying key considerations before deciding

  • Admitting when they need more expertise and involving others wisely

  • Identifying possible unintended consequences of decisions

  • Balancing risks and opportunities appropriately

  • Applying past experience and lessons learned to navigate new situations

Examples of expertise in leadership roles:

  • Having a strong knowledge base in the organization's industry

  • Understanding the technical skills needed for the organization's success

  • Possessing experience managing budgets and finances wisely if in an executive role

  • Having sharp strategic planning and data analysis capabilities

  • Applying strong communication, coaching, and facilitation skills

  • Demonstrating creative problem solving and project management abilities

Conclusion


Trust is the foundation for productive, engaging workplaces. According to comprehensive research, positive relationships, consistency, and good judgment are the three qualities that build trust most effectively in leadership roles. Leaders must dedicate focused effort to cultivating trust through exhibiting these qualities authentically and continuously. When leaders have trusting relationships with employees, organizations thrive. By living out the 3 elements of trust - positive relationships, consistency, and good judgment - leaders can transform their organizations by inspiring engagement, innovation, and shared success. The rewards of high-trust leadership are immense, but require commitment and courage. The effort is well worth the substantial benefits to individuals, teams, and organizations.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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