Are you a trustworthy leader? Does it matter to your team's performance?

If someone were to tell you, “Your team doesn’t trust you.” Would you know what that meant? Could you identify what you were doing, or not doing, that would lead someone to this conclusion?  Would you know if it even mattered if they trusted you? 

Trust and trustworthiness may be one of those things that we assume we inherently understand, know how to do, and are rewarded for. Because of this, we may not take much time to think about trust, until we get into a situation like the one above  — or its happy opposite, when someone says: “Your team really trusts you. What’s your secret?"

While some aspects of trust may be hard to pin down, research indicates others are pretty clear and probably worth knowing about. Let's review.

What is trust and how does it “work”? 

Leading change in an organization can sometimes feel like you are one side of a vast chasm, and your team, employees or colleagues are on the other.  You need to inspire them to take the leap to join you on the other side. While a variety of factors may influence this leap, some likely have to do with trust. But what is trust? Some researchers differentiate between trust, and the things that may inspire or support it, as follows (Colquitt, 2007) :

  • Trust: One’s willingness to accept some vulnerability based on expectations of a positive outcome.

  • Trust Propensity: One’s general disposition towards relying on others.

  • Trustworthiness : Characteristics that inspire or inhibit trust.

When you break it down like this, it seems that some of the factors that are linked to the “leap decision” made by your colleagues or employees may be unique to them (trust propensity). However, that decision can also be influenced by your actions and behaviors (trustworthiness) as a leader.  


Are you a trustworthy leader? 

There are a variety of ways to look at what makes us trustworthy, but I will focus here on the model put forth by Roger Mayer and colleagues (1995), the merits of which have been supported by a meta-analytical study (Colquitt, 2007). Mayer reviewed other models of trust and identified three characteristics that people often use to evaluate trustworthiness. I’ve adapted them below. 

  • Ability: Are you “good” at what you do? (Skills, competencies, technical knowledge)

  • Benevolence: Are you looking out for my best interests? (Caring, openness, loyalty)

  • Integrity: Do you uphold principles that are important to me? Do you do what you say? (Consistency, reliability, fairness)

In a meta-analysis of 132 samples, Colquitt and colleagues found that all three of these dimensions — ability, benevolence, and integrity — were strongly and uniquely related to trust levels. Interestingly, they found the relationship to be similar whether they were looking at interactions amongst co-workers or between staff and leaders/managers, except in one regard. The link between integrity and trust was much stronger for relationships between employees and managers. Walking the talk, following up and being fair-minded may matter even more for organizational leadership. 


It’s also worth noting that Mayer and colleagues suggest thinking of trustworthiness, and the dimensions of it, as a spectrum, rather than a binary condition (1995).  In this view, it’s possible to be somewhat trustworthy.  For instance, you may have a high-degree of technical ability and be well respected for it; however, if you struggle with follow-through, and people feel unsure of your integrity, you may be viewed as less trustworthy. 

Does trust matter for team performance? 

When we lead change, we are often asking people to do something different — which may feel like a risk to them.  Generally, we are also implicitly, if not explicitly, asking them to contribute to the effort for the overall good of the organization, (if not for themselves.)  Research indicates that trust may be related to such behaviors.

Colquitt and colleagues found that trust has a moderately positive relationship with a variety of work-related outcomes, include risk-taking and citizenship behavior. They also saw a negative relationship between trust and counter-productive behaviors. 

Based on this evidence, it seems likely that building trust is worth the effort. (To learn more about the impact of trust on teams, check out my article at Science for Work.) 

Steps you can take to build trust

In any leadership context, but particularly one involving strategic or operational change, it can be worthwhile to consider how others view you and how your actions may be shaping these views.  Take stock of the following: 

  • Do you have a high-degree of technical skill or ability related to the change you are making? If so, how can you communicate this to others to build their confidence in your leadership? If this a new area for you, how might you mitigate this potential shortcoming?

  • How do you communicate - through words and actions - what’s important to you? Does your team or colleagues understand the principles and values that drive your actions? Do you know what your team or colleagues value and respect? Do your words and actions reflect both your principles and those that are important to your colleagues or staff?

  • Do your actions align with your words? Making promises is relatively easy to do — following through can be another story. Take stock of how well your actions align to your words. Do your colleagues have confidence that they can rely on you to keep your word and act with fairness, most of the time? If not, what steps can you take to ensure better follow through?


Colquitt, Jason A., Brent A. Scott, and Jeffery A. Lepine. "Trust, trustworthiness, and trust propensity: A meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance." Journal of Applied Psychology 92.4 (2007): 909-27. Web.  Find the article here.

Mayer, R. C., J. H. Davis, and F. D. Schoorman. "An Integrative Model Of Organizational Trust." Academy of Management Review 20.3 (1995): 709-34. Web. Find the article here.