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10 Trust Building Tips for Leaders


Hot Leadership Tip

If people don’t believe in a process, they seldom trust the outcome of that process.


Quick Leadership Idea

My four-year-old, little brother Mike and I took baby steps, hand in hand, out onto the lake. “How cool is this Mike? We swim out here all the time. Summer’s water is now winter’s ice.”

Are you trustworthy?

Are you trustworthy?

Just then, I heard the ice crack. “Okay Mike, I think we’ve been out here long enough. Let’s walk back to the dock.” It was the longest 50-yard shuffle of my life. We were fortunate to make it back safely. The best part was Mike never realized that we had been so close to plunging through the ice. The worst part for my 14-year-old brain was that trust in my dad did plunge!

Twenty minutes earlier, Uncle Howard and dad sat in the kitchen of our family cottage on the shores of the frozen lake, drinking beer. When Mike and I burst through the kitchen door, asking if the ice was safe for us to walk on, dad asserted that it was. It wasn’t!


How well do you communicate trust to your team (at work and at home)?


To answer that question it’s important to understand what trust really is and why it’s so important. Trust researchers tell us that trust is a decision to be vulnerable to the actions of others. My trust in dad (and perhaps my trust in others) cracked that day. For years, I chose to limit my vulnerability to him, especially when he was drinking.

High trust is critical to leaders at all levels because low trust damages morale, productivity, quality, and profitability. (1) In my work with executive teams, I’ve found that low trust is the most common cause of poor team performance. You can gauge the level of trust on your team by answering these questions: To what extent do your team members…

1. Engage in cognitive (task) conflict as needed, while minimizing emotional (relationship) conflict?

2. Willingly share information, ideas and suggestions with other team members?

3. Employ a quality, transparent, and collaborative process when making team decisions?

4. Manage the tension between self-interest and the organization’s interest?

5. Act in a manner that is congruent with their words?

6. Provide honest, open feedback even if it challenges the prevailing point of view?

7. Manage their emotions and respect the emotions of others?

8. Openly discuss challenges, knowing others will respond constructively and caringly?

9. Demonstrate their competence consistently as they fulfill their responsibilities?

10. Stay focused on strategic priorities?


The less frequently these behaviors are demonstrated, the lower the trust will be… and the poorer the team performs. For example, at a recent retreat with a mayor and her city council, the city council members discussed an issue briefly and then decided to go along with the mayor’s suggestion. Before we proceeded to the next topic, I informed the group that they were on thin ice if they merely skated along with the mayor’s suggestion. I pointed out that they had not engaged in one of the hallmarks of highly effective teams – cognitive conflict. Cognitive conflict occurs when individuals have a healthy debate about tasks. It often involves managing the tension between advocacy (I think ABC!) and inquiry (Can you help us understand why you think XYZ?). With a little process facilitation by me, the city council and mayor engaged in a healthy discussion, out of which they created a better solution.


It has taken me many years to learn how to build and maintain trust. Here are three ways to shorten your learning curve. I hope they help you avoid the perils of thin ice:

 1. Share the top 10 trust questions above with your team. Invite them to create norms to increase the practice of the low-scoring behaviors. Each question is actually a behavior that builds trust.

 2. E-mail me to receive a free copy of my best practices white paper titled, How to Increase Trust on Top Management Teams. (DJ@DaveJensenOnLeadership.com)

 3. Call me to discuss how executive retreats can boost your team’s performance. (310 397-6686)


Let me know about your trust issues. How do you build and maintain trust?

Keep stretching when you’re pulled,



  1. Robert Galford and Anne Seiblod Drapeau; The Enemies of Trust, Harvard Business Review, February 2003, 89 – 95.

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