The Most Important Skill for Great Leaders? Trustworthiness.

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(99u article) What makes a great leader? You are probably thinking it’s something buzzword-worthy like confidence. Or maybe vision. Or emotional intelligence—you hear about that one all the time. For sure, those are all good qualities for a leader to have, but the answer is actually trustworthiness. Technically, it’s not just being trustworthy that is key, but being seen as trustworthy.

The question “Can I trust you?” is always on our minds whenever we interact with other people (particularly when we meet them for the first time) though we usually aren’t consciously aware of asking it. Studies suggest that in order to figure out whether or not someone is trustworthy, we analyze their words and deeds to find answers to two questions: “Do you have good intentions toward me—are you a friend or a foe?” and “Do you have what it takes to act on those intentions?”

So how do we find the answers? Decades of research show that we are all highly tuned-in to the warmth and competence of those around us. Warmth is being friendly, kind, loyal, and empathetic. It is taken as evidence that you have good intentions toward others. Your competence—being intelligent, creative, skilled, effective—is taken as evidence that you can act on your intentions if you want to. Competent people are therefore valuable allies or potent enemies. Less competent people are objects of compassion, or scorn.

When your team trusts you as a leader, it increases commitment to team goals. Communication improves, and ideas flow more freely, increasing creativity and productivity. Perhaps most important, in the hands of a trusted leader, employees are more comfortable with change and more willing to embrace a new vision. When your team doesn’t trust you, you don’t get their best effort. You’ll then find yourself unable to inspire, influence, and create real change—an ineffective leader.

When your team doesn’t trust you, you don’t get their best effort.

We can all agree that trust is good. The problem, however, is that we are so eager to prove that we “know what we’re doing” as leaders that we neglect the arguably more important part of the trust formula: proving that we will act with our colleagues’ interests in mind. In other words, trust is an afterthought.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, author of many of the key studies on trust and leadership, has argued that when you project competence before warmth, you run the risk of appearing cold and eliciting fear from your employees. They might respect you, but fearful employees are rarely able to work at their best. And you certainly can’t blame them for wanting to jump ship once an offer to work for someone who doesn’t make them constantly anxious comes along.

Fearful employees are rarely able to work at their best.

In a nutshell, being competent is certainly important, but it must be coupled with the sense that you have your employees’ welfare and interests in mind and that what they experience matters to you. Think about how you can use the following strategies to up your trust quotient:

#1 Pay Attention

Make eye contact, and hold it—both when you are speaking and listening. Nod from time to time to show you are understanding what’s being said to you (and if you don’t understand, ask). Smile, especially when they do. And above all else, really focus and internalize what is being said to you—everyone needs to feel that they have been heard, even when you can’t give them what they are asking for.

#2 Trust Them First

Human beings have a deeply-rooted tendency toward reciprocity. We are naturally inclined to want to do favors, give gifts, and work to promote those who have done these things for us in the past. And the same holds true when it comes to trust—we are more likely to feel we can trust someone who has trusted us first. So assign tasks and projects that reflect this trust. Socially, share personal (but appropriate!) stories, talk about your struggles and challenges, let them see your fallible, human side. Allowing yourself to be a bit vulnerable is a great way to project warmth.

#3 Show Empathy

As a leader it’s easy to have a laser-like focus on the tasks at hand. But take the time to mentally put yourself in your employees’ shoes, to really try to grasp their perspective. Use phrases like “I imagine you must have felt…” to convey that empathy directly.

All that said, if you just aren’t the warm-and-fuzzy type, and maybe talking about “feelings” makes you uncomfortable, fear not. Evidence suggests that the moral character aspects of warmth—the sense that you are fair, principled, courageous, and honest—are also highly effective for establishing trust. In other words, to get your employees to trust you, be someone they can always count on to do the right thing.

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