In a class on leadership I was facilitating last week, we ended up talking a lot about trust.  A worthwhile endeavor for sure.  I recall years ago when I read Stephen Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, which highlighted how building an effective foundation of trust enables work to happen much more quickly, efficiently and effortlessly than it ever would if trust was lacking.

A low trust environment can lead to burnout

When we think about the relationships in our life – personal or professional, we often evaluate them based on whether we think we can trust the person.  “I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”  This is especially important if you’ve ever worked for a leader you didn’t think you could trust.  My virtual office is often full of career and leadership coaching clients experiencing burn out due to prolonged exposure to an untrustworthy leader or team environment.  And it takes me back to times in my career where I felt like I was walking on pins and needles all the time, lest I upset the apple cart.  It takes a toll.  Especially on our bodies, as we often find ourselves in a state of hyper alert all of the time.  The fight or flight response is constantly triggered, stress hormones like cortisol are constantly pulsing through our bodies, and at some point we finally crash and burn.

A simple equation for building trust

Folks often pontificate about the importance of building trust, but few get into the nitty gritty of how you do it.  And it’s more than just being knowledgeable in a certain skill or topic area.  Competency and credibility are important, but it isn’t the whole equation.  And there is an equation for trust by the way.  I ran across this simple trust equation years ago, and here it is:

C + R + I



The trust equation explained

C stands for Credibility.  Or in other words, “I can trust what she says about x…”. Do you know your stuff?  Have you built the technical skills and competencies for the task at hand?  Do you have the necessary leadership skills and competencies to guide your team, things like giving feedback?  Setting a vision?  Delegation?  Holding others accountable?

R stands for Reliability.  Or in other words, “I can trust she will follow through.”  What’s your level of integrity when it comes to follow through currently?  Do you make promises you have no intention of keeping?  Or perhaps you have every intention but you find yourself saying yes to every request that crosses your path.  You overpromise and underdeliver.  Good intentions are wonderful but will ultimately snooker you if you can’t come up with the follow through.

I stands for Intimacy.  Or in other words, “I can trust I can come to them with my concerns and problems.”  To what extent are you an approachable leader?  Do others seek you out for your counsel and your advice?  How effective are you at building rapport with others beyond just the trivial niceties?  Leaders who score high on this attribute are often leaders comfortable with vulnerability, admitting their own mistakes and acknowledging the shared challenges we all face as humans struggling to relate.

The role of self orientation in the trust equation

And then there’s the S.O., which stands for Self Orientation.  “I can trust that this leader prioritizes my needs and the needs of the team above their own.”  I often refer to it as the “Me, Me, Me, Me, Me” principle.  This is the most important component of trust for leaders to consider.  Am I overly ambitious? Is it all about me? And it’s often the most overlooked because we’re not often super conscious of the vibes we’re giving off on this front.

I’ll give you an example.  Years ago, a few months after I had transitioned into my new role at leadership development at BP, our supervisor set up an opportunity for us to do a leadership 360.  If you’ve never done a 360, it’s a fantastic (and often humbling) opportunity to see how others would access your strengths and developmental opportunities as a leader.  I often recommend leaders complete one prior to commencing coaching.

There were several strengths that were highlighted in my 360.  And one main theme when it came to areas for improvement.  “Seems more concerned with her projects and deliverables than the needs of the team.”  It was a theme that came from more than one respondent. 

Was I a selfish and self-serving person?  Not anymore than the next person.  Every human being is concerned with and should be concerned with self on some level.  But the context I was operating in gives a clue to what was really going on – I had transitioned into a new role that I didn’t have any experience in, I was super concerned about failing, I was desperately trying to prove myself and prove my worth in the department.  And because of all of that, I was overly focused on self.  It wasn’t intentional, but there’s a difference between intention and impact, and that’s why a 360 can be so powerful. 

At that point I recognized that the biggest hurdle to my success as a leader in that team, was winning back the trust of the team.  And I had a clear mandate on where to start in order to effect change on that front.

I often have leaders rate themselves on all four of these elements on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being high. If you’re really brave, ask your team where they would rate you.  If you’re high in self orientation, it’s probably a pretty good place to start your inner work.

Coaching questions for thought

  • How would you score yourself on each element of the trust equation?  Why did you pick the scores you did?  Would you team score you differently?  It may be worth getting their perspective on this front.
  • How are these scores enabling you to be effective?  What do you need to work on the most?  How will you do it?

Shelley Pernot is a leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and step into their greatness.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!