Leading with trust
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Leading with trust

May 15, 2023 | Updated on May 16, 2023

Imagine you have a sensitive personnel matter to handle, and you’d like to gain some perspective before acting. Who would you go to for sage counsel, recognizing that the conversation would stay between you?

Consider also a time when you failed and wanted to process what happened and learn from it. Who would you share your experience with, knowing they care enough to lift you up and give you an honest perspective to help you grow as a leader?

Finally, think of a crucial task you need to hand off to someone else. Who would you rely on to get it done?

As you answer each question, you begin to paint a picture of what trust looks like. Trust is the foundation of all our relationships and enables us to collaborate and get things done. Furthermore, federal leaders are stewards of the public’s trust, so when they model trust practices for their teams, those teams connect with and engage the public more effectively.

How to build trust as a leader

How can leaders develop trust within their teams and agencies?

Trust is about behavior. We establish trusting relationships by what we do, not by what we intend to do.

How we treat people is a great place to start. In the famous words of Maya Angelou, “People will never forget how we make them feel.” Do they feel respected and valued in their interactions with you? How do you respond to input and upward feedback? Do you receive input with genuine interest and feedback without getting defensive? When possible, do you change your behavior for the better?

Trust is also earned through a combination of character and competence. In the framework outlined in “The Speed of Trust,” Stephen Covey shows how our integrity, combined with our ability to get results, gives us credibility with others.

For example, we show character by handling an interpersonal conflict with discretion and respect, and we demonstrate competence by delivering promised support to the team. The Covey framework also uses the apt metaphor of making trust deposits and withdrawals. What we do or don’t do day to day contributes to an increase or decrease of trust.

I recently spoke to a decorated public servant leader who shared an early career story of how a new boss stepped up for her during a critical personal situation. The leader still remembers this supportive action today—what a huge deposit in the bank of trust!

As for withdrawals, often the largest are leaders breaking confidentiality, or not providing fair treatment or opportunity on their teams. We continually make small deposits or withdrawals throughout the course of any workday.

Using ‘The Speed of Trust’ framework

These are but a few of the ways leaders can build trust. How these methods get applied will depend on unique organizational contexts and circumstances, but several practices are fundamental. These practices draw from “The Speed of Trust” and connect closely with the values and competencies of our Public Service Leadership Model.

  • Listen. When we really listen—and not just wait to defend or dispute—we validate people’s experiences, show respect and learn.
  • Maintain confidentiality. If something shared confidentially becomes more widely known, it is incredibly difficult to rebuild trust. Think of keeping confidential information in a vault.
  • Keep commitments. Follow through so people know you are taking action.
  • Practice accountability. Hold others and yourself accountable. Establishing a culture of mutual accountability communicates the right way of doing things and builds confidence in the integrity of a workplace culture and the execution of an organization’s mission.
  • Demonstrate respect. Ask questions, truly listen to learn about others’ experiences and be more inclusive in your work.

Learn more about the offerings and resources from our Public Service Leadership Institute, a central source of programs, policies and perspectives related to leading in government.

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