Trust or Bust

Filed under: by: Art Style and Design

Written by Keith Ayers

Why Senior Executives and Leaders Must Earn, Not Expect, Trust from Their Employees ---

Larry is the President of NuParts, Inc., a small manufacturing company that makes components. The business has enjoyed good relationships with its customers over the 25 years it has been operating. Similar to many manufacturing firms in the United States, however, increasing competition from overseas suppliers has required the company to reduce their prices over the past two years. Larry was brought in by the owners to reduce costs so that pricing could be more competitive and profitability maintained.
Larry and his management team did an apparently excellent job. They retained all of their key customers and their rigorous cost-cutting program maintained previous levels of profitability. The owners placed a lot of trust in Larry, and they certainly saw him as trustworthy.

Beneath the surface, the picture at NuParts was not so rosy. One of the decisions made by Larry and the senior team to reduce costs was to lay off 10 percent of the workforce. They felt existing production levels could be maintained by the reduced workforce if they worked harder and smarter. Quality suffered a little since the layoffs, with defective parts increasing by 6 percent and staff turnover increasing to 20 percent, up from just 5 percent two years ago.
Larry was aware of morale problems and decided that an employee survey might help identify what could be done to boost morale, employee engagement, and hopefully solve the quality and turnover problems. The results of the survey provided valuable feedback, but the management team was shocked and disappointed that the worst scoring area was trust for management.
How can they not trust us? ranted Larry at the next management team meeting. Look at the results we have achieved against some pretty stiff competition. They still have their jobs dont they?
What Larry did not understand was that being trustworthy does not guarantee that you will be trusted. Building trust and trustworthiness are two different things. Trust is a feeling you have towards someone else. Have you ever trusted someone whom you later found out was not trustworthy? Have you ever not trusted somebody and then, later on, discovered that person was in fact trustworthy? Whether you are trusted is not just a factor of your trustworthiness. It is based primarily on your ability to build trust. Leaders must understand the distinction between building trust and being trustworthy.
Larry did not think about the need to build trust with the employees at NuParts. He was too focused on being trustworthy to the owners and in the process he had in fact seriously diminished trust with the employees. Somewhere along the way, his team members became alienated. If things had kept up as they were, many more employees would have left. To understand the difference between trustworthiness and building trust and discover what went wrong for Larry, it is necessary to understand the elements that must be present for trust to develop.

The Four Elements of Trust

The Elements of Trust emerged out of research conducted by one of the founders of the consulting group of which I am president, Integro Leadership Institute. The founder, Ralph Colby, determined what needed to be present for trust to develop in a relationship:

1. Congruence: I say what I mean and mean what I say. I walk my talk. I am honest and ethical.
2. Openness: I am receptive to others ideas and opinions. I am willing to disclose whats on my mind.
3. Acceptance: Who you are is fine with me. I do not judge other people.
4. Reliability: You can count on me to keep my commitments. I do my best at everything I do.

Lets explore each of these a little more closely.


You may remember what congruent triangles are from geometry class. Congruent triangles have angles of the same measure; even though their size may vary, the shape remains consistent.
Congruence means the same as: what I say is the same as what I really mean. It is walking the talk, or practicing what you preach. Congruence is about principles. Honesty, ethics, and integrity come under the element of congruence. It is through your congruent behavior that your team learns about your honesty and integrity.
When you are not congruent, other people tend to pick up on it. They will see it in your body language, your facial expressions, or in the inconsistency in the tone of your voice. Its a gut feeling that tips us off to how other people are feeling. Sometimes, we feel the need to sugarcoat things or tell white lies so we do not hurt someone elses feelings. But this can dilute your message as well as diminish the trust the other person has for you now and in the future.


Nobody likes to operate in the dark. Team members want and, in most cases, need to know about their performance and welcome feedback. How open are you with the members of your team? Do you encourage them to share their ideas, feelings, concerns, and, most importantly, what they expect of you as their leader?
The openness you create directly reflects your teams involvement. Openness engages people; they want to know more about what is going on. When openness is high between you and your team, they are more interested in what the organization does and how well the team and the organization are doing. And remember, openness is a two-way street.


This is the least obvious of the Elements of Trust, and yet it is the element that allows the other three elements to flourish. When people know they are accepted and respected, they are willing to be more open and are more committed to being congruent and reliable.
At a seminar a few years ago, I heard a manager say, When I go to my friends place to visit with him, I know I can check my ego at the door. This is a great way to look at acceptance; when you know that you are truly accepted for who you are, you are more likely to say whats on your mind.
Can your team members check their egos at the door when they are with you? Or do they need to be on guard, wondering when the next judgment or criticism is going to come?


Reliability is more than keeping commitments and following through on projects or meeting deadlines. It means committing to those things that you do not necessarily say, but know you must do anyway, like being punctual for meetings.
As a leader, it is extremely important to your success that you can rely on your team members to deliver the results they are capable of and, in turn, that your team members can expect the same of you. How often have you been in a meeting where the start time is pushed back, waiting for people to arrive? Are you the cause of these delays? It is not only your reliability that suffers when you do that; you are also sending an arrogant message that your time is more important than theirs. It is a lack of acceptance as well. Yes, you may be the boss, and what you have to do is really important, but so is what your team members have to do. When you keep them waiting, you diminish their trust.

Belief in People

Several years ago on an executive coaching assignment in Sydney, Australia, I came across one of the worst 360-degree reports I had ever seen. At Integro, we offer a variety of diagnostic tools to assess leadership competencies, one of which is a 360-degree assessment. In a nutshell, the report compares how managers perceive their own leadership competencies against how their team members, peers, and immediate supervisors rate them. Our clients like the 360-degree report because managers who are aware of how their behavior is perceived are better able to adapt and create a responsibility-based work environment.
In this instance, the managers team members were, at times, brutal in their assessment of him, particularly in his lack of interpersonal skills. They commented that he had a tendency to micromanage, constantly checking up on employees. This manager rated his own performance very high in every category. The huge discrepancy obviously troubled him.
I met with this manager to debrief his 360-degree report, and ask him to think about whether the results may have something to do with why his staff turnover had increased significantly over the previous year. During the debriefing, he admitted to micromanaging people, so I asked why he felt he had to be so controlling. He said, To make sure everyone does what they are supposed to do. He operated under the assumption that unless he controlled his team and their situation, they would do the wrong thing. So I asked, What do you really believe about the people youve got working for you here?
He thought deeply about his answer for a good thirty seconds in silence, then glanced up at me and said, Ive got some really good people working here. Before the results of the 360-degree report, believing in his people had not really occurred to him. He knew they were trustworthy, but he had not demonstrated this trust. In fact, he had demonstrated the opposite. He also realized he had lost some of his best people because they refused to work for someone who did not trust them.
Even self-directed people who embrace accountability resent constant surveillance and control by authorities. Ask yourself how you feel when you are being watched and checked on all the time. If you dont like it, why would your team members?
Control-based leaders send a clear message to their staff that they dont trust them to do a good job unless they are controlled. At some point, these managers convince themselves their teams results would be worse if they did not control them. Pretty soon, the most worthwhile employees begin to switch off and stare out the window like bored students in an uninspiring class, occasionally glancing at the clock and waiting for it all to be over.
If that situation were to continue, you would have resignation letters from most of your best people. The 360-degree report was the catalyst that convinced this particular manager that his outlook on both leadership and his team was not working for him.
Everything I know from personal experience working with many different clients tells me that when employees are asked what they think they can achieve, they set their goals higher than management could have ever set for them. It comes back to that basic decision about whether you believe in people or not.

Do You Believe in Your People?

Trust is the essential foundation for creating a responsibility-based culture. When you really trust, believe in, and partner with people, and when you get them more involved and give them more responsibility, then you not only get more self-directed behavior, but they also become more passionate about what they do. You get people who really want to make a difference.
If you believe in people, you lay the foundation for an open and honest work environment in which employees feel switched on, engaged, and prepared to be passionate about their work. People really do want to make a difference; they want to do their best. Only when you believe this will you be able to build the kind of trusting relationships necessary to get the best performance out of your team and ignite their passion.

Keith Ayers, 2009

About Keith Ayers

Keith Ayers is president of Integro Leadership Institute, an international consulting group with offices in the U.S. and Australia that works with CEOs and senior executives to build an adaptable, innovative, and engaging work environment with trust as its foundation. His new book Engagement is Not Enough: You Need Passionate Employees to Achieve Your Dream (Elevate, 2008) is now available in all major bookstores and online. Keith has recently developed the Passion Index, a web-based assessment that measures the level of passion you have for your work. To take the assessment, or to find more information on Keith Ayers and Integro Leadership Institute, log on to