How do leaders build trust?

Building an organisation where staff have belief in the leaders and the direction of travel are key to success – but that requires trust
Trust Headshots Compressed

“Trust dies but mistrust blossoms,” wrote Sophocles, and any business leader who wants to truly cultivate trust must understand both elements of this. Trust can indeed be broken by a single wrong move, but it can also creep into an organisation through flawed decisions, selfish actions or a general sense of disengagement.

So what makes someone trustworthy? Raconteur hosted a panel discussion with three business leaders to get their views on the behaviours that break trust and some practical ways to inspire a sense of trust within an organisation.

What makes a trustworthy leader?

BlackBerry’s CTO, Charles Eagan, says a business leader creates trust when they lead by example. “Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves,” he says. “You can’t always be the general that sits back on the hill. You need to show people that you’re in it with them.” 

Many leaders have done exactly that. Mary Barra is CEO of General Motors today, but she began her career on the assembly line and many have made the link between that understanding of the business and its workers and her approval rating of 86% on Glassdoor. At Iceland, one of the UK’s largest private companies, founder Malcolm Walker insisted his son Richard spend a year stacking shelves when his son first showed an interest in joining the family firm.

You can’t always be the general that sits back on the hill, you need to show people that you’re in it with them 

While it’s vital to be able to set strategic direction from the top, Eagan believes that: “When leaders lead by example, they can create passion within their team and that’s an optimal environment for building trust.” But as well as getting out on the shop floor or onto the assembly line, it means considering how you like to be treated and practising this with your people, says Ajaz Ahmed, CEO of innovation agency AKQA. 

“If you could do a one-minute MBA, it should be something along the lines of ‘make a list of all the things that have been done to you that you absolutely abhorred, and don’t do them to anyone. Ever. And make a list of all the things that you love, and do those all the time,’” he adds. 

For Ahmed, trusted leaders are those who can foster good relationships and goodwill among the people they lead. This can be done by being transparent, consistent and a good communicator, but also by listening to concerns and criticism. “Fundamentally,” he says, “it comes down to respect.”

In any organisation, trust must also go both ways. Research published in Edelman’s Trust Barometer found that in companies where employees feel their CEO trusts them, 87% trust the CEO in return. In companies where employees do not feel trusted, this proportion is 27%. No leader can operate from a position of trust if their employees lack autonomy or feel that they are being overly monitored or treated like children.

How trust is broken

Indeed, there is no surer way of breaking trust in leadership than through mistreating those who work for you. “What diminishes trust very quickly,” says Ahmed, “is when people in leadership or management positions demean or disrespect colleagues.” 

This may sound obvious, but respecting staff is more than simply remembering their name or not ‘speaking down’ to them. It means fostering a culture where employees feel comfortable speaking up in meetings and sharing ideas or feedback. It means making sure that people can take time off when they need to, even for reasons you might not be able to empathise with. It means having ample opportunities for progression so that workers aren’t trapped in roles that do not stretch and challenge them. 

In his 2009 book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us, the author and former chief speechwriter for Al Gore, Daniel H Pink, states that motivation comes from having autonomy, mastery and purpose. Any leader who fails to enable these three things for their staff will suffer, both in terms of their own trust levels and in the performance of their organisation. 

Leaders can break trust by having double standards, employing the “do as I say, not as I do” maxim, says Eagan, or by failing to live up to the high demands of a C-suite role. “Sometimes you lose trust by not making the tough calls.”

One of the most challenging aspects of being a business leader is the unavoidable fact that you may not be able to keep every promise or deliver on every plan. Mishandling these events is a surefire way to break trust. 

Data breaches offer a wealth of examples of exactly this. “Some technology partners have had cyber events and there’s a distinction between those I still work with and those I don’t,” says Rachel Higham, CIO of advertising giant WPP. “Those I don’t work with any more didn’t tell me for weeks or months that I had an issue and had been exposed. They weren’t transparent about how that exposure was caused, and they didn’t take accountability or apologise.” 

Which is a shame, because such events can be an opportunity to increase trust if the right actions are taken. Referring to how the data breaches were managed, Higham says those she still works with took specific actions to allay concerns: “The CEO was on a call the following morning and they were clear about what had happened, while keeping me informed every step of the way. They threw resources at me to help solve the problem they had caused and they followed up continuously.” 

Eagan echoes this. “People make mistakes. But I think if you’re honest, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, and explain the rationale behind it, you can regain trust.” 

How leaders have built trust

WPP: building a high-trust team from scratch 

When Higham joined WPP in December 2020, it was to lead a multi-year digital transformation project that would impact 2,800 agencies. The first step was to build a leadership team from scratch who could be trusted to run a project of this size. 

“I knew I had to build a team that had high trust and would perform well, really quickly,” says Higham. She began by bringing in a behavioural and organisational psychologist, who helped her establish the characteristics she needed in each team member. This meant finding people with a high emotional quotient, low ego, a growth mindset and who were human-centred - all qualities that successful leaders need to build real trust.

Then there was an extra challenge: everyone was remote because it was happening during Covid lockdowns. To deal with this, Higham decided to run pre-immersion sessions so that, she explains, “we got to know each other as humans”. 

The new leadership team shared what motivated them, what excited them, their values and their challenges, which were distilled into the group’s ‘big rules’. These were then shared with the broader division, so they could give feedback on whether the leaders were living up to them. “That transparency and authenticity were key to building a high level of trust, both for and in us, as a team,” says Higham.

AKQA: banishing ambiguity from the workplace 

When it comes to running AKQA, Ahmed aims to build trust by making sure every employee knows what is expected of them. In pursuit of this goal, five years ago he implemented the AKQA framework. 

On the surface, this seems a neat organisational tool designed to drive performance and productivity. The framework includes four pillars – people, client, reputation and commercial – with a set of goals attached to each pillar. These targets could include having a client satisfaction rating of nine out of 10, or to have 90% of employees who would recommend the organisation as a good place to work. 

Crucially, though, this tool is a way of building trust throughout the 7,000-people organisation. Every employee knows what the organisation stands for, the targets they are working to and how the business as a whole is progressing towards those targets. Every quarter, Ahmed will personally send a report to every member of the business, discussing how the organisation is tracking. 

“It’s incredibly clear and consistent,” he says. “It’s helped us to scale, continually improve and express what we represent. But the main reason we started it is because we don’t want any of our employees to have to work in an environment of ambiguity. Through this, they can trust that the leaders are all on the same page and that we’re all focused on the same outcomes.”

If businesses are to thrive in the difficult times ahead, they will need to cultivate trust, particularly in their leaders. “People follow leaders that they trust,” says Eagan. “And they’ll follow them with passion even into the dark places.” 

As the UK economy continues to struggle, the war for talent rages on and the skills gap widens, leaders will need all the trust they can get.