3 Tips for Creating Trust in Organizational Leaders

by | Aug 29, 2017 | approachable leadership

People who trust their immediate managers are much more likely to trust organizational leaders.

Last week I was privileged to present the Approachable Leadership Workshop to our local ATD Chapter (that’s Association for Talent Development). It was a little stressful, since almost everyone in the room delivers training for a living. On a break one of the class came up to talk to me. She asked a great question: “How does approachability differ from trust?”

This is such a great question that it was asked in a dissertation on approachability. That study found that while approachability is tightly correlated with trust they are distinct from each other. If anything it appears that approachability is foundational to trust.

Approachability and trust are keys to how an employee feels about his or her immediate leader. But do feelings of trust go further than that? Can they impact how you feel about top leaders? Can trust “trickle up” to other leaders in the company? A 2017 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology says yes. Ashley Fulmer, one of the authors summarizes this “trickle up” leadership theory in a recent HBR article.

The basic idea is that the key to creating trust in an organization is to focus on one-on-one relationship-building between leaders and those they lead. How a person feels about his immediate supervisor has a direct effect on how he feels about other aspects of the company. Including top management. And we want our team to trust top organizational leaders. Why? Because “trust in organizational leaders is linked to employees’ intention to stay, compliance with strategic decisions, and unit performance.”

How Trust Transfer Works

Trust transfer occurs “when individuals use their trust in a more familiar entity to gauge their trust in a less familiar entity.” In the workplace, the more familiar entity is the direct supervisor. And the less familiar entity is senior management. In their research, Fulmer and her partner, Cheri Ostroff, found that:

trust transferred up when frontline leaders exhibited behaviors that were perceived to show high procedural justice, such as making decisions in an unbiased manner and listening to followers’ concerns. In other words, when frontline leaders were perceived as being more fair, employees who trusted their frontline leaders had more trust in senior organizational leaders.

What Our Experience Shows

Our own employee surveys don’t always follow this “trickle up” pattern. While there is generally a correlation between trust in immediate leaders and organizational trust, it doesn’t always play out. You can trust your immediate leader but not trust top management. In fact, your loyalty to your leader can sometimes result in actions contrary to the organization’s goals. An “us against the world” mentality. One where the top managers are seen as an enemy (like the Nut Island Effect).

On the other hand, you can also have a situation where you trust top management but don’t trust your immediate boss. You see that your boss is the problem and not behaving consistently with the culture. However, over time you may lose trust in the organization for tolerating the behavior of your bad leader.

The best situation is where there is high trust with both the company and the supervisor. Because…

“trust in frontline leaders may only affect employee behaviors that are related to or observable by the frontline leaders. In contrast, trust in senior organizational leaders can prompt employees to internalize organizational goals, which influence a wider range of employee behaviors, including those that are not directly related to frontline leaders.”

When you’ve created a culture of trust across the board, the effect is self-reinforcing.

Where do you start?

One great first step is to train leaders to be more approachable. Approachability is a little easier and more concrete to train than trust. Not only that, but trainees are more open to learning about being easier to approach than being easier to trust. Think about it. People react badly to the message “you’re not trustworthy.” We generally believe we can be trusted. How can we expect our leaders to want to work on developing something that they don’t believe they’re missing?

On the other hand, explaining how just being in a position of power can create distance helps drop defenses. Leaders are open to learning tools to help them reduce this power-distance gap. They are excited to learn tools that makes their team more comfortable and more likely to approach.

Here are 3 Ways Approachable Leaders Grow Trust

  1. They reduce power distance. The more you’re worried about someone’s power over you (what they can do to you or take away from you), the more you trigger the limbic part of your brain. This is where your fear center resides. And when it’s triggered, it hijacks your whole system. And makes it impossible to trust someone. By reducing power distance in relationships with your team, the “control” you have over them (livelihood, well-being, sense of value) stops being a focal point. This opens up opportunity for trust to develop.
  2. They are more vulnerable. Trust isn’t just granted to you. It’s something you earn. You earn it by being trustworthy and by trusting others. These are two different things. But they both require vulnerability. When I share something that I feel is a weakness of mine to you, you feel more comfortable sharing and being vulnerable with me. Trust develops. Our Approachability Window tool teaches more about how to incorporate this type of development with your team.
  3. We’re members of the same tribe. I trust people who I feel like I belong with. I think this is true for most people. We also have a tendency to distrust people that we feel like we’re different from. Approachable Leaders create a sense of unity with their team members by focusing on the Progress Principle. By asking questions like: What’s going on with you? What’re you working on? What’s your next step? How can I help you? You make people feel like you’re in whatever it is together. This grows trust by emphasizing things you have in common.

What’s been your experience trusting organizational leaders? Can you think of one leader in your life that you trusted more than others? What was different about your relationship with him or her? What can you take from that and apply to how you lead your team today?