The Importance of Trust in Leadership

July 18, 2023

The Importance of Trust in Leadership

Trust serves as the cornerstone for positive interactions among individuals in the workplace. As leaders, we understand its vital role, yet it is often overlooked. Without trust, achieving meaningful outcomes with others becomes arduous, whether it's within a team, a group, or even at a societal level, as evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can reflect from our professional relationships that the most successful ones were built on a foundation of high trust, while low-trust relationships have proven to be challenging journeys.

However, comprehending trust and how to foster it as leaders can be elusive. Fortunately, the literature on leadership research introduces two types of trust that offer valuable insights: cognitive trust and affective trust. Both types are significant, but they focus on different aspects of relationships. In this blog, we will delve into the distinctions between cognitive and affective trust and explore practical strategies to cultivate both.

Cognitive trust revolves around capability, competence, and dependability. It raises questions such as, "Can I rely on you?" and "Will you follow through on your promises?" This form of trust evaluates your proficiency in fulfilling commitments and executing tasks effectively. Conversely, affective trust centers on warmth, interpersonal care, concern, and emotional bonds with others. It probes whether you genuinely care about your team members and exhibit goodwill in your interactions. Likability also plays a role in affective trust.

To differentiate between these two types of trust, consider that affective trust prompts the question, "What are your intentions towards me? Are they positive or negative?" On the other hand, cognitive trust prompts the question, "How capable are you of carrying out those intentions?" While both forms of trust require cultivation, prioritizing affective trust at the outset of any working relationship proves beneficial. By establishing a robust foundation of affective trust, people become more receptive to collaboration. Over time, through repeated interactions, cognitive trust can be fostered.

Now, let's explore three practical ways to build both affective and cognitive trust from a leadership perspective:

Demonstrate vulnerability: Compelling research reveals the power of vulnerability in leadership. When leaders display vulnerability, it increases trust, creates psychological safety, and encourages others to do the same. In a high-trust team, phrases like "Mistakes were made," "I apologize," or "I'm facing challenges. Can you offer assistance?" become commonplace. Modeling vulnerability sets the tone for open and honest communication within the team.

Foster transparency in intentions: Clear communication of intentions and providing context are critical for nurturing trust. As leaders, articulating the "why" behind decisions minimizes the likelihood of misunderstandings or assumptions. This is especially important during times of change, when guiding a team through adversity or delivering constructive feedback. For instance, when providing feedback, one might say, "I aim for your success in this project, so I would like to share some feedback that may prove helpful."

Ensure follow-through and reliability: Consistency is key to building trust. Leaders must be mindful of the promises and commitments they make. It is crucial to deliver on those promises whenever possible. If circumstances change, refer back to vulnerability and transparency, acknowledging the shift and its impact. Providing regular status updates, preferably in advance, not only keeps the team informed but also demonstrates reliability. Avoid overpromising and regularly reflect on the promises made to the team or direct reports. Are you consistently delivering on these commitments?

Trust serves as the foundation of every healthy relationship and is an essential aspect that leaders must prioritize and nurture. As you reflect on your leadership journey, consider the ways in which you are building both affective and cognitive trust with your team. By actively fostering trust, you create an environment where collaboration flourishes, individuals feel valued, and your team can reach their full potential. Trust is not built overnight, but with consistent effort and a genuine commitment to nurturing relationships, a leader can establish a high-trust culture that fosters success among the individuals in the team.