The importance of establishing and retaining trust as a leader

In leadership, trust can be hard to earn and easy to lose. Here we explore the benefits of high trust leadership and share insights on fostering trust and learning to trust in your team.


At a glance:

  • As a leader it is equally important to be trusted by your team, and to have trust in your team.
  • High trust work environments can have a positive and wide-reaching impact on wellbeing and performance and brand.
  • Consistency of action and communication is one of the most important leadership qualities for building trust as a leader.

In leadership, trust is both essential and multidimensional.

“Trust is a two-way street,” explains Nona Sichinava, a Partner for Gerard Daniels in London. “For the benefits working in a high trust environment to be realised, leaders must deliver on what is expected to earn the trust of their team. But they must also have trust in their team to do the same.”

Here Nona explores what happens under low leadership; how trust can positively impact teams; and how to establish and retain trust as a leader.

What happens under low trust leadership?

There are some environments – like secret service organisations – where a low trust model serves the strategic purpose well. “In these organisations information holds such high value that trust, communication and engagement look a little different,” says Nona. “However, these environments sit outside of the realm of normal, as most organisations cannot operate effectively without trust.”

“When you hire someone, you are trusting that they will deliver on their mandate and do their best work. The opposite of having that trust is micromanagement,” Nona continues. “When you micromanage, you reduce morale and stifle creativity and innovation. You also deprive less experienced team members of the autonomy they need to grow and hinder the ability of more experienced team members to live up to their potential.”

Under low trust leadership, people are more likely to report:

  • Job insecurity and concerns about one’s future; this diverts focus from the organisational objectives
  • Poor job satisfaction
  • A lack of engagement and connection to organisational purpose
  • High turnover, particularly during crisis situations
  • Higher likelihood of office politics.

When a team lacks trust, it can be also felt outside of the organisation. “Trust is never just about one person, as the behaviours of individuals can shape its perception in the market and the trust placed in an organisation,” says Nona. “How you manage issues to regain trust is equally important, as it’s easy for one or two bad apples to be blamed when a deeper cultural issue may exist.”

What are the benefits of high trust leadership

Contrary to low trust environments, leading and working in high trust environment gives people the autonomy which often allows them to thrive. It also has wide-reaching impact on wellbeing and performance, allowing teams to improve information sharing, alignment, innovation, creative thinking, and problem solving.

A report published by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) reveals that a culture of trust can:

  • Enhance productivity by as much as 50%
  • Improve engagement by 76 per cent
  • Help employees to take 13 per cent fewer sick days
  • Reduce stress by 74 per cent and burnout by 40 per cent.

Trust plays an important role in navigating situations of crisis and conflict, too. “In environments where tough decisions need to be made, you're not going to move through these processes effectively without trust,” says Nona. “This is particularly true of environments like joint ventures, executive committees and newly merged enterprises, where different teams and cultures come together to deliver on a common strategic objective. Without trust this won’t happen.”

“When trust is low, crisis situations can lead to higher than normal employee turnover as people search for stability elsewhere,” Nona continues. “What you really want is for people to come together around the shared goal of enduring and growing through crisis, and with a culture of trust this is far more likely to happen.”

Bringing trusted talent into your organisation

In addition to the need for particular skills and expertise, CEOs and other senior leaders are appointed for their ability to bring credibility to an organisation. Recruiting leaders with a reputation for building high trust teams can be an effective element of sourcing strategy if the trust in your brand is weakened.

“If a company has been plagued by scandal or corruption, hiring a known and trusted leader sends a signal to employees and the market that change and transformation are on the way,” says Nona. “This can be an important message to send to the capital markets when confidence around capital raising needs to be restored. Rebuilding trust in the leadership of an organisation is also important for maintaining the social licence to operate, particularly when major stakeholders like local communities have been negatively impacted by the poor performance of prior leaders.”

How to foster trust, and learn to trust in your team

Consistency is one of the most important leadership qualities for building trust as a leader. “Teams must know what is expected of them in a work environment and their specific roles,” says Nona. “To achieve this and build a culture of trust, employees should be empowered to deliver on their responsibilities. Additionally, behavioural standards must be consistent throughout an organisation. There can be no favouritism in reward systems, and unacceptable behaviour must be managed consistently at all levels.”

Ways to earn trust as a leader include:

  • Keep your word – do what you say you will do and don’t promise what you can’t deliver
  • Entrust your team with autonomy – micromanaging stifles performance
  • Prioritise mentoring and development – help your team to reach its full potential
  • Delegate – it holds you and your team collectively accountable
  • Be clear in your communication – withholding information breeds distrust, but you must also know how and what to communicate at different levels of your organisation
  • Develop an ability to listen to the views and ideas of other – it helps in making informed decisions
  • Vulnerability – don’t be afraid to recognise gaps in your knowledge, experience and skills and build a team around you to supplement those gaps
  • Relationships at all levels need to be nurtured, so invest in building them – these relationships provide better insight into the organisational issues and give employees a more personal way of knowing and connecting with you
  • Remember, it is a team effort – by recognising excellence and giving credit where credit is due you empower your team members and help them deliver on the organisational objectives.

To access a global network of experienced and trusted leaders or learn more about building high performance leadership teams, connect with Nona or your local Gerard Daniels team.

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