The 3 most effective ways to build trust as a leader

Based on data from 597 people, the best ways to build trust as a leader aren’t what you think they are.

How do you build trust as a leader? The answer seems intuitive enough.

For many of us, we hold company off-sites and run team-building activities. Informal lunches, monthly social get-togethers, and one-on-one meetings are part of how we build trust at work.

We also thank our team publicly and give employee recognition for a job well done. And, we strive to be transparent with company information during all-team meetings.

These are among the most popular ways to build trust because they work… Right?

Wrong.

To my surprise, in our survey we ran this past fall with 597 managers and employees, these three ways to build trust were in fact viewed as the least effective by employees.

Specifically, these were the 3 least effective ways to build trust as a leader:

Company retreats + team-building activities.

Only 1% of managers and employees who responded to the survey said that this was the most effective way to build trust. This is fascinating, given the amount of money and energy many companies spend planning company off-sites and team-building activities.

Thanking your team and giving recognition.

Only 4% of people said that this was the most effective to build trust in a team. While this shouldn’t imply you should never thank your team, it goes to show there’s more to building trust than doling out compliments.

Being transparent with company info.

Only 10% of managers and employees stated that this was the most effective way to build trust in a team. No doubt that transparency is important in a company – if you want your team to be able to make the same decisions as you, they need access to the same information as you. But when it comes to building trust, perhaps it’s not as effective as we’d imagined it to be.

Now, just because these methods are not viewed as “most effective” for building trust at work doesn’t mean you should stop doing these things, all together. Rather, they may accomplish other worthy goals in the organization. (For example, being transparent with company info is helpful for alignment in a team.)

So what is most effective when it comes to building trust?

From our survey, here’s what 597 managers and employees said were the most effective ways to build trust:

#1: Show vulnerability as a leader.

Twenty-eight percent of people said that being vulnerable and admitting your shortcomings as a leader was the most effective way to build trust. For both employees and managers in the survey, they remarked how being vulnerable with your weaknesses and mistakes demonstrated empathy: The more empathetic someone was, the more likely they were to trust them. One person in the survey in particular remarked how their manager “needs to show more empathy,” and that “morally he is probably a good person but there are some times when it’s unclear if he actually has empathy due to challenges expressing it.”

#2: Communicate the intent behind your actions.

Twenty-six percent of people said making your intentions behind your actions clear was the most effective way to build trust. This makes sense, given that intent is such a primary part of the definition of trust, to begin with. Communicating the intent behind your actions means being open about why you’re saying something, and why decisions are made – including your decisions to not act on something. Be opaque about why you’re changing your mind, or fail to express why you’re giving feedback to someone and it can wreck havoc on your work relationship.

#3: Follow through on commitments.

Eighteen percent of employees expressed that simply following through on commitments was the most effective ways to build trust. This seems to be especially powerful given that we found that 48% of employees believed that the company has been all talk and no action on something lately – and 28% of employees said their manager has been all talk and no action. Similarly, 61% of managers believed that their direct reports had been all talk and no action on something lately.

In short, trust is not rapport. Trust is not team-building. It’s not about getting people to like you. And it’s not about getting people to just “feel good” about you or the company.

Trust is your intentions and your behavior. It’s making it clear why you’re doing something, being honest about it, and then following through with it.

You can hold as many company retreats as you’d like… But if you’re not vulnerable during those moments, your team won’t trust you.

You can be congratulatory with your team every week… But if you don’t follow through on your commitments, your words ring hollow.

You can share company financials far and wide… But if you don’t reveal your intentions about what you’ll do with that information, your team will be skeptical of you.

Align what you do with what you say. Your word and your action builds trust. Nothing else does.


Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

19 thoughts on “The 3 most effective ways to build trust as a leader

  1. An excellent, useful blog post. I’ve always mistrusted the “forced fun” of company outings and retreats, but some of the other info here was a (welcome) surprise. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. I agree with the the premise of this article however I do think that with distributed teams, “Company retreats + team-building activities” are also important. Humans aren’t very good at empathizing with words on a screen. They don’t have to be frequent or overly formal events but “two pizza teams” sometimes need to share an actual pizza.

  3. Is this a published study? If so, could you please add a link to the source?

    It’s not clear who it is “we” are with “our study”. By the same token, nothing is said of the sample participants.
    There’s also very very little given to the methodology of the survey. It’s implied that respondents were allowed to pick one answer only.

    I looked into the KnowYourTeam blog, but it gave me no more info than is given here.

    You know, that transparency thing you mentioned…

    1. Hey Antonius! Thanks for this feedback – it’s completely fair. It is *not* a published study, so our data should absolutely be considered with that caveat. It is a survey we ran in the fall of 2018, that was available publicly. You can view all the survey questions (and take it yourself!) here: https://kyteam.typeform.com/to/Nh1ZC5

      Respondents were able to pick one answer only, and “other” was also an option.

  4. Excellent insight into both sides of a team. Neither party enjoys being pumped up with a lot of bull. Cut to the chase, get to work, be honest with one another, if you say you will do something then do it or keep your mouth shut from the beginning, work together, and remember everyone including the company is there for the same reason To Make Money!

  5. Claire, thanks for sharing your insights on building trust with your team. I totally concur with them. What you said about following through with your commitments is huge. I call it keeping your promises, but they essential mean the same thing, which is doing what we say (integrity) and saying what we do (honesty). This can be practiced with anyone including your team at work, colleagues, or friends, family, or acquaintances. Nowadays, people don’t keep their word as they used to in the past. We make (implicit) promises all the time only to break them later (without even thinking twice about it).

    Like you mentioned, sharing your reasons behind your actions is key. When others know why we do what we do, not only does their understanding about it improve, but it also helps you build your relationship with them.

    Another way we build trust is when we ask others for help. In fact, a leader is there to serve and is not supposed to be a know-it-all, simply because he has others he can look to for answers and he is present to help facilitate that process.

    Your point about showing vulnerability reminded me of instances when I was open about my follies with my staff. It gave them the confidence to express their ideas in a worry-free environment. It showed that no one was perfect **and** that’s okay. This was not to suggest it’s okay to make the same mistakes repeatedly (it’s not), but it’s encouraged that you make different ones.

    I wrote more about these topics (below) which you can find here. https://dazne.net/archive/

    Building Trust
    Building Relationships
    Having Integrity
    Keeping Your Promises

  6. I just read your short article on the 3 most effective ways to build trust. Interestingly, your conclusions are close to the findings of Lencioni and Covey. I am going to borrow this in my blog, whilst citing you.

    I have a question on your methodology: You mention a study of 597 people. Did they answer a questionniare, or did you glean the insights from one-on-one interviews? You say they were “managers and employees”. Is it safe to assume the participants came from multiple organizations, or did they come from a single enity?

    Thanks, in advance, for clarification on these two points.

    Best regards,

    1. The article created a void for “trust”. The reference to a survey is exceptionally vague. Claims and conclusions make from the survey forces the reader to accept with total trust what the author deciphered from the survey. You ask your reader to “trust” but nothing is given to develop that trust.

      “In short, why should I trust what you’ve written??

  7. I’d also be interested to know what question was asked. “The 3 least effective” doesn’t seem quite the same as “the options that fewest people chose as the most effective”.

    1. Hey Martin!

      The question that was asked was:

      What’s the most effective way to build trust within a team, in your opinion?

      – Admitting your shortcomings and vulnerabilities as a leader.
      – Asking for feedback about your performance.
      – Being transparent with company information.
      – Communicating your intent behind your actions.
      – Following through on commitments.
      – Getting to know people’s work style preferences though surveys + personality test + working style tests etc.
      – Sharing the team direction.
      – Showing proven results from your performance.
      – Thanking your team + giving recognition.
      – Team-building activities and events (e.g., lunch meetings, –
      happy hours, retreats)
      – Other

      Respondents were able to pick one answer only.

      The full survey is available here: https://kyteam.typeform.com/to/Nh1ZC5

  8. I also agree that a link to the actual survey would help. How many questions were they? How were they chosen as the available options? How many could people choose?

  9. “Least effective”?
    What does it exactly mean?

    We had discussions about some of those in my office, and actions like recognition were percieved by employees as a fair thing to do, and almost a duty of a manager, not something that could just automagically make a manager a good or successful manager. Some of us agreed that used by bad managers, such actions are just seen as nothing but a facade.

    But it doesn’t mean they’re not necessary and very welcome from good managers.

    I’m afraid surveys might have trouble with phrasing the question.

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