How to build Trust as a Leader

Writing this week is John Graham. He co-founded Guildmaster Consulting, where he specializes in management coaching and consulting. For more content like this, check out Guildmaster’s blog and follow them on LinkedIn.

Let’s get it out in the open: this is a fraught question. Asking, “How do I succeed as a leader?” is as helpful as asking, “How do I make a million dollars quickly?” And “how to succeed as a leader” is really what we’re asking here. Leaders’ power primarily comes from the trust others have in them.

There are a thousand other answers out there that are either lacking in generality (“Here’s how I did it…”) to borderline sexist (“Leaders fight their way to the top!”)

Let’s cut through all that chatter and define some terms more rigorously.

What Is Leadership?

To figure out how to build trust as a leader, we need to decide what a leader is.

For every wrong answer to building trust as a leader, there is a different definition of “leader.” Ironically, these can range from merely good citizens to coded words for a malignant narcissist. We want to avoid those.

These days, though, I’d say the most damaging definition of leadership is a contrast to “management.”

This damaging definition can take one of two forms:

  • Leaders are senior, while managers are middle. So CEOs and CTOs are leaders, while front-line supervisors are managers.
  • Leaders are “good” people in charge, while managers are “bad” people in charge.

Both are damaging for the same reason, which I’ll get to in a second. First, let’s get the definition of management out of the way.

Management is the art of getting things done through people.

This definition descends directly from Mary Parker Follett, a management theorist, consultant, and social worker in the early 1900s.

Peter Drucker expounded on this definition when he created the term Knowledge Worker, who “gets things done through what they know.”

Let’s contrast that with the definition we use for leadership:

Leadership is the ability to attract and retain followers

You can now see why defining leadership in opposition to management is so dangerous. If not, here’s the punchline:

  • Management and leadership are two different things
  • The best managers are good leaders, and the best leaders are good managers

Why Is Leadership Important

By showing that leadership is not simply what “executive” managers do, we also make it clear that anyone can be a leader. Woah. Did you feel that? That was this blog suddenly applying to everyone. This content has moved from niche to general advice!

I know there’s a lot of drum circle thinking that we can all be leaders and live in harmony. That’s not what I’m saying here. I’m saying that knowing how to be a good leader is how:

  • Individual contributors get organizational changes they want moving
  • Middle managers collaborate with other departments
  • C-level officers inspire their entire firms
  • Community organizers effect change at the local and national levels

And more. Ultimately, leadership is about getting followers. What if you want to use a new Javascript framework at work? It would be best if you convinced others to follow that idea. If you’re going to convince your extended family to try a new restaurant, well, you just entered the realm of leadership.

That brings us to the next big question about building trust as a leader:

How To Get Followers

Er, no, that’s not actually the next big question. The next big question is

How To Get Followers Why Do People Follow Others?

Let’s do the easy answer first. You probably work for a firm. In that way, you follow the management and C-levels of that firm. Why? Because they pay you.

So, money talks. That’s not surprising. It’s also surprisingly easy to convince your in-laws to try a new restaurant when they’re in town by treating them. So at least the “money buys followers” idea is general.

This idea also shows that when the money runs out, so does the followership.

We start with this easy case to explore some more complex cases. Why do people follow others when money is not involved?

  • Why do people go to church?
  • Why do people join civic organizations and political parties?
  • Why do people volunteer for clubs?

Let’s twist the question around a bit and ask it this way: what motivates people to do these things? These folks have become followers – what inspired them to do so?

On this, there’s good research from Dan Pink and his book Drive. People can be motivated by other things, just like money and other incentives. Dan summarizes these in the following list:

  • Purpose
  • Mastery
  • Autonomy

When you can’t just buy followers with material goods, a leader must offer these other things as incentives.

Let’s get autonomy out of the way: smart leaders won’t micromanage. This fact is universal. People don’t follow because they want you to tell them what to do. This fact is true even as much as the cynic in us might believe otherwise. In all cases of smart leaders, leaders have left their followers with at least a sense of autonomy.

Ethical leadership would leave followers with genuine autonomy and not merely a sense of it.

Purpose and mastery, though, are trickier. To understand why let’s take another step back.

Leadership And Culture

Humans form groups. That should not be controversial. Groups are social networks, with each individual having a relationship with other individuals. Leadership is a relationship – a follower has a “following” relationship with a leader.

The issue that comes into play, though, is that humans don’t form just arbitrary groups. They tend to form groups across shared values. There are many ways to define values and break down how they work. The simplest method I’ve found is from human psychology.

Psychologists break human personality across six facets:

  • Humility/honesty
  • Emotionality (sometimes called “neuroticism”)
  • eXtraversion
  • Agreeability
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness to experience

A handy mnemonic for this is HEXACO. For personality buffs, you should see the Big 5 in there, with a new facet, “Honesty/Humility,” added.

If I know how agreeable you are, I don’t learn much about how agreeable your friends are. Whom you associate with (your grouping) isn’t determined by how agreeable or disagreeable you or your friends are.

The same is true of extraversion, emotionality, and conscientiousness. If I know how conscientious you are, I do not know anything about your social group.

However, if I know how honest you are, I can guess your friends are similar. The same is true of how open you are to experiences! (I will now refer to honesty/humility as H and openness to experience as O).

People self-organize into groups along the O and H axis.

Let’s look at some of the questions from above: why do people go to church? Why do people join political parties?

It probably doesn’t take much work to start putting denominations and political parties along an axis of openness to experience. We usually call those more open to new experiences progressives, while those who are happy with tradition we call conservatives.

The H factor is less intuitive until you realize that honest and humble people prefer egalitarian relationships. In contrast, those who are a little more manipulative and competitive prefer hierarchical relationships (usually when they’re at the top).

What Does This Have To Do With Leadership?

As a leader, you must provide purpose and mastery to potential followers. Purpose and mastery–or your answers to those things–are your product as a leader. It’s what you’re selling!

And just like with any product or sales, you must understand that the market can be segmented. In this case, we psychometrically segment the market of followers by their values. Leaders will have trouble building and maintaining relationships with followers of different values.

(We’ll now use the letter “o” to mean “low openness” while the capital letter “O” implies “high openness.”)

How do we apply this model to leadership? First, we need to think about purpose. There will be four different types of purpose that followers want in leaders.

OH: Vision

Open and humble leaders need to provide a vision of the future. They need to show how using some new technology, policy, or philosophy will improve the world.

Oh: Movement

Open and competitive leaders need to build a movement. They’re creating history in which their followers want to participate. They provide honor and fame by association with that movement.

oh: Wealth

Traditional and competitive leaders not only need to provide a competitive incentive package for their followers but also the secrets of future wealth.

oH: Belonging

Traditional and humble leaders need to provide a sense of place and belonging. Their followers are looking for a group to give them a sense of history. While the Oh leaders want to create history, their opposite wants to find theirs.

Similarly, what leaders provide followers differs along the mastery dimension.

OH: Growth

Open and honest leaders must provide opportunities for their followers to improve themselves and be better people.

Oh: Recognition

The keyword in the Oh realm is genius. Just as a leader must be a “genius” to make history, their followers want to be considered geniuses. The Oh leader’s recognition of their followers’ genius is how they look for mastery.

oh: Authority

Authority is designated power. The leader of an oh organization needs to appoint authorities and delegate who holds what power. Those who get power will see that as their form of mastery. Similar to the Oh organization, the leader actively grants authority.

oH: Identity

An oH organization’s leaders must provide their followers with a sense of identity. In a technical organization, for example, they need to define what a software engineer is. This sense of identity answers people’s questions about who they are and what they do. Unlike the oh organization, followers in an oH organization won’t be happy with capricious recognition. It must make sense and seem fair.

Let’s Review

Leaders provide purpose and mastery – that’s their value proposition. You must target that sense of purpose and mastery to the subculture you hope to lead.

While it may seem like we haven’t answered how to build trust as a leader, we have by using this product framework.

Product, marketing, and sales already have a framework for trust. It’s the sales and marketing funnel. At the end of the funnel, you have a conversion – a new follower. In the beginning, you have everyone you think may be interested in your product.

We build trust when we move people along this marketing funnel.

There are two things you have to do.

The Bouncer And The Owner

In Thinking Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman explains that we can look at the brain as a combination of two systems. A fast heuristic system he calls System 1. Complimenting this System 1 is a slow, methodical system he calls System 2.

We make many decisions in System 1. We only use System 2 when we have to do so.

If you’re selling something, you have to talk to both systems. This fact is sometimes unintuitive. I like to use the metaphor of a club. System 1 is the club’s bouncer, and System 2 is the club’s owner.

Many people hate sales. They see unethical sales practices like pricing rules or putting an attractive person in an ad as making a deal with the bouncer and cutting the owner out.

I want to focus on ethical sales. That is, making a deal with the owner–something in the owner’s interest where value is created. Indeed information is all you need, right?

No. Because System 1 doesn’t let just anyone talk to System 2. You’ve got to get through the bouncer first. So understanding how System 1 works is essential to building trust.

Being trustworthy is two seemingly similar things:

  • Having a track record
  • Seeming like you have a track record

All that is to say, if your product can deliver on its results, but you have terrible optics, you’ll never get past the bouncer to talk to the owner.

Talking To The Owner

Talking to the owner is easy.

  • Cite evidence and case studies
  • Build arguments, reasoning
  • Build business models, do the math
  • Bring results

Well, it might not seem that easy. But ultimately, if you double-check your work and that what you’re selling is in the owner’s interest, they should buy. They make cool, calm, collected, and long-term rational decisions.

Talking To The Bouncer

This interaction gets trickier.

The bouncer is a hothead. They’ve got a huge line behind you to work through and have limited time to hear your pitch. They’re not going to do the numbers. In fact, they may see you pulling out charts and graphs as either too dull or an attempt to trick them.

The bouncer has some intuition about who will be trouble in the club versus who isn’t. It would be best if you did not look like trouble. Maybe even smile, learn the bouncer’s name, and compliment their haircut.

Ultimately, talking to the bouncer is about building influence. Robert Cialdini’s book provides much better coverage of this topic. To sum up, though, there are seven levers to talk to the bouncer:

  • Reciprocity (get the bouncer a chocolate bar)
  • Liking (wear your best club attire and compliment the bouncer’s physique)
  • Social proof (bring friends who will vouch for you)
  • Scarcity (this offer won’t last long!)
  • Authority (bring your college degree)
  • Consistency (remind the bouncer they let you in last time)
  • Unity (if the bouncer’s a fan of the Yankees, so are you)

How To Build Trust As A Leader

How do you build trust as a leader, then? It’s a simple three-step process.

  1. Provide potential followers with a sense of purpose and mastery that fits their values
  2. Build influence with the follower’s inner bouncer
  3. Show results to the follower’s inner owner

About the Author

Born the son of a COBOL programmer, John cut his teeth like many on QBasic hacking the Gorillas game. After stints in defense, advertising, and quantitative finance, John finally decided to hunt the world’s most dangerous prey: human socio-technical systems.

John tackled organizational structure, people management, and strategy like any other piece of software: seeking buy-in, testing ideas, and minimizing technical debt. He developed the ‘three seashells’ system to ensure people have purpose, mastery, and autonomy in their work. These ideas later proved instrumental in agile roll-outs, reorgs to streamlined team topologies, and other process improvements.

John received his MBA from the University of Texas, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude, and received his BS from Trinity University in San Antonio with majors in Computer Science and Philosophy. He has his PMI-ACP and PSM 1 certifications and has done enough Thai boxing to know he’s terrible at it.

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