By Alan Weisenberger

Building a high level of trust within an organization can seem like the search for the Holy Grail: It’s highly valued, but very elusive.

Some of us believe that trust must be earned. We’re not willing to accept the risk of betrayed trust.

Some of us grant trust more freely until we have reason to withhold it. We recognize that people give their best when we expect the best out of them.

Most of us start off relationships somewhere between extreme trust and extreme lack of trust.

When we bias toward distrust, we start a downward spiral that weakens us all and is difficult to stop. When we accept some level of risk and bias toward trust, we start an upward spiral that strengthens us all – more than enough to withstand the hits from the times when trust is broken.

Trust is inextricably tied to risk: We don’t need trust where there is no risk. If you’re not willing to take some measure of risk on others, you are not a trusting person. If others are not willing to take some risk with you, you are not considered to be trustworthy.

Trust works best as a two-way street. The best way to gain trust is to give it. If you don’t trust others, they have little reason to trust you. The cycle of distrust does not break until someone takes some risk. If you’re a leader, it’s your job to set the example. Sure, you’ll get burned sometimes, and we’re not talking about tossing all caution to the wind. But good leaders are good risk-takers, and the best risk-takers aren’t afraid to lose a few to win a lot. So good leaders aren’t afraid to lean into trust.

Sources of [Dis]Trust: Competence, Character, and Motivation
When we say an unqualified, “I don’t trust him”, we swing a broad axe that does more damage than is usually warranted. “Trust” has multiple sources. I can trust your character but not your competency. That’s why I wouldn’t ask even a virtuous nine-year-old to drive my car. Or I can trust your competency but not your character. Your technology skill has nothing to do with whether I’ll let you date my daughter.

Closely tied to character is the question of whether I trust your motivation. If I know you’re looking out for my best interest, I don’t need to know every detail. But if I believe you’re all about you, I need to know everything you’re up to so I can take care of myself.

It’s unwarranted and unhealthy to demean a person’s character because they lack a competency. Declaring – even to ourselves – that we don’t trust someone is dangerous if we aren’t clear about the source of our distrust. Without a clear diagnosis of what is lacking, we can’t fulfill our primary responsibility as leaders: Seeing our followers reach their full potential.

• Is it their competence I don’t trust? How can I help them develop it?

• Is their character the issue? Have I built their trust in my character and motivation enough that I can address character issues with them?

• Is it their motivation that I question? How well do I understand what drives them? Depending how deeply rooted the untrustworthy motivation, maybe I can help them shape it, or maybe it’s time to part ways.

The Paradox of Trust and Transparency
Transparency is often touted as foundational to building trust. And it can be – or not…

We live in a culture that equates our desire to know something with our right to know it. We feel entitled to tap into the endless free-flow of information, believing that anyone who holds anything back is hiding something and can’t be trusted. Except, of course, that we choose to keep some things private and we can be trusted.

The trust/transparency paradox is that transparency can help build trust; but where trust is high, transparency isn’t required.

If I hire an electrician to wire my house, I trust his competence and don’t expect him to “transparently” tell me every step of how he’s going to do it. I expect his competency in that area to far exceed mine, so I don’t have the context, understanding, or interest to be able to process everything his “transparency” might reveal to me.

If I don’t trust the electrician’s competency, character, or motives, I’ll either not hire him or perhaps get a competent person I trust to oversee his work.

Trust and transparency work together like this:

• When trust is high, transparency is easily offered, but not in demand.

• When trust is low, transparency is withheld but in high demand.

However, there is a wildcard. Sometimes transparency in a low trust environment decreases trust even further. This can happen when facts are disclosed that the recipients don’t have the context and capacity to comprehend. For example, the disclosure that our organization had a million dollar profit last year might be understood very differently by a minimum wage worker than by a billion-dollar investor. There may be complex factors that determine whether that number is good news or bad. But be careful about using this as an excuse to hold things close to the vest.

Underestimating or overestimating our audience’s capacity for making sense of our transparency is dangerous. Getting trust and transparency right isn’t always simple, but here are a few foundational principles to keep in mind:

• The top priority of a leader is the growth of their followers. Invest the time and energy to help them comprehend the realities they want to understand.

• Trust is a two-way street. The more you give trust, the more you’ll get it. Leaders gain the trust of their followers by trusting them. Followers gain the trust of their leaders by trusting them.

• Good leadership places the needs of our followers ahead of our own. Is the purpose of my transparency self-serving or do I really have their needs in mind? We learn those needs by listening, not assuming.

• The easiest time to build trust is when you don’t need it. Continuously paying attention to building a healthy culture and right relationships is the best way to avert a trust crisis.

No leader can afford to take trust for granted. It is the most valuable resource we have. And it’s hard to gain and easy to lose.
The word “leader” is often used to define anyone in a position of authority or responsibility. I would define those people as “managers”. While leadership and management are both important, they are separate skillsets. Leadership is about influencing people, management is about driving for results. Learn more at

Alan Weisenberger launched enLumen Leadership Services to invest in the next generation of business and nonprofit leaders. With a passion to help young leaders become wise before they grow old, Alan provides coaching, mentoring, and consulting to help leaders create healthy organizations where people flourish. His background includes twenty years as VP of Technology Services with the Evangelical Christian Credit Union and eleven years with Bank of America. He currently serves on several nonprofit boards. He and his wife, Kerri, have three daughters and one son-in-law. You can contact him at, or 714-981-5585. For more leadership tips, follow his leadership blog at

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