Building Trust as a New Leader: Six Key Communication Secrets

By Amber Lineback

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Recently one of my coaching clients, Corey*, landed THE BIG PROMOTION he’d been seeking in his consulting firm. We’d been working on his skills, both in and out of the interviews, and his announcement was cause for celebration, complete with high-fives and happy dances.

Building trust with a new team can be done gracefully when you follow these tipsHis new role as an I.T. executive was full of opportunity to drive results, make some much-needed changes, and, quite frankly, show ‘em his skills.

But once the jubilation subsided, Corey was contemplative. His new leader survey results (gathered less than two months after his promotion) showed his team didn’t trust him. Who woulda thought something as touchy-feely as trust would hold back such a smart and accomplished professional?

Together we worked through it and he learned six key communication secrets that helped him—and will help you build trust as a new leader.

Is Trust A Squishy Concept?

Critics suggest that trust is just a squishy concept, and there’s no room for it in modern businesses. I respectfully (and strongly!) disagree.

If people are the engines that keep organizations running, then trust is the oil. It’s the lubricant that drives faster change, promotes innovation, and fosters the idea of giving a little extra discretionary energy when all logic rallies against it. Without trust, just like an engine without oil, organizations seize up.

Six Ways to Gain Trust Through Communications

Let’s learn from Corey’s story:

1. Ask before you tell. Corey arrived in his new role with guns blazing. He was sure he knew all the answers, and he couldn’t wait for a captive audience (his new team) to tell them his plans.

The problem with this approach is that others don’t feel heard—and when that happens, they rebel. After he understood the downsides to telling before asking, he dove right into asking open-ended questions, such as “What is holding this team back from reaching our full potential?” and “What are we doing well and should continue doing?”.
And get this: they had some really good ideas that Corey hadn’t even thought of.  Double word score: the act of asking builds trust.

2. Practice whole body listening. When Corey was an individual contributor, he got rewarded for completing lots of tasks. So naturally, he became skilled at doing several things at once, such as checking his email while on conference calls.  But that type of “multi-tasking” doesn’t really pay the dividends we think it will, mostly because we cannot multi-task our attention.

Oh, and because people aren’t tasks.

The job of a leader is to get results through other people, and when Corey attempted to check his inbox while one of his direct reports shared a serious concern, it sent a loud (and unfortunate) message to them: you don’t matter.

Whole-body listening is a form of listening beyond just the words—it’s paying attention to body language and picking up on subtle cues that suggest the speaker may need more than what he’s saying out loud. Leaders who practice whole body listening often understand emotions, those pesky little buggers that can either accelerate or stunt results.
Corey learned that by putting his phone and keyboard down when interacting with his team members that he created a greater trust, just through listening (and without saying a word).

3. Be vulnerable.  Some of you may be thinking, “Amber, you’re crazy. Vulnerability is a weakness.  I should just tell people about my successes, not my failures.  My team needs a strong leader.”

I’m here to tell you that vulnerability can be a strength, and it is one of the fastest routes to trust I’ve witnessed.
Corey spent the first few weeks in his new role telling his team about his degrees, accomplishments, and stellar track record—heck, he even covered how his three-year-old son was the most advanced in preschool.

As much as he was hoping that it would earn him some credibility with his new team, it ended up landing as full-on credibility-robbing bragging. His team was so annoyed they avoided him for fear of hearing another story about how his latest soufflé didn’t fall.

If he had taken a more humble route, such as telling them about the earlier time he applied for a promotion (but didn’t get it, for the record) and what he learned about his own shortcomings, he would have both connected with them on a human level AND built trust.

4. If not the what, then the how. Often a change in leadership occurs because there’s a change needed in an organization, and that was the case with Corey’s team.

His hiring manager brought him in to put new processes in place for quicker I.T. implementations for their clients. Without it, they were going to lose (even more!) business to their competitors. But this change in the process meant that some of his new direct reports would need to change the way they’d been operating for years (if not decades).
In other words, the what had already been decided: process improvements. The way Corey created buy-in was to give them some input on the how. For example, he mapped out a vision of what success looked like. (Including such goals as customer retention and high customer satisfaction scores.) He also gave them the chance to give input on how to get there. Some innovative ideas surfaced, and he incorporated several of them into his strategic plan—building trust while he did it.

5. Honor commitments (or don’t make them). As a new leader, Corey felt pulled in all directions as he gathered input from many different stakeholders. He began feeling like there wasn’t enough time in the day, and some of his promises simply slipped.

The result was that he began to be viewed as inconsistent (on a good day) and unreliable (on a bad day). This fundamentally hurt any trust his team had. Even though he had the best of intentions, he learned that he had to create calendar reminders for due dates for the un-delegatable tasks. When possible, he also learned to delegate, especially when it could be used to develop one of his direct reports.

It will likely take a while, but he’s gradually earning trust back as he follows through on his commitments.

6. Give them the credit. Within a few months, Corey’s team had made some process improvements that were driving results for their firm. Corey’s initial instinct was to take credit for the work of his team—after all, he is the boss, right?

Unfortunately, nothing erodes trust more quickly than taking full credit when others did the heavy lifting. If instead Corey had publically and with gratitude given them the credit, he would have reinforced the behavior. He would also have further motivated them to get even more results. They would trust that they’d get the kudos when they had done the work.

Leaders who do that create a win-win…while also creating trust. Ultimately, Corey learned how to build trust as a new leader, and he’s still a work-in-progress.


How about you:  How have you seen new leaders communicate in ways that create trust? Enquiring minds (including me and Corey!) want to know!

*Name and some details have been changed to protect the innocent.

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