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8 Important Trust Signals Leaders Send Out to their Employees

As human beings, we are biologically programmed to want to be with people and work together, as we instinctively know it helps our survival. Yet, there is a dark underside to this need to be with others – we also fear rejection.

When we first start working with a company or a new team, we quickly assess whether the team leader and our teammates can be trusted. We carefully conserve an image that we are competent. We avoid asking silly questions, speaking up about our concerns, sharing information or reporting errors. In other words, we avoid the critical elements for team discussions that we need to have to improve performance and avert disaster. As it happens, these are also the very factors we need to feel fulfilled in our jobs to perform optimally. 

To improve team performance, leaders (and organisations) need to signal to their employees that they can be trusted to do the right thing. Trust provides people with a sense of safety to explore and understand their workplace. It helps people reach flow state and work at their highest level.

As a leader, it's important that you are sending out the right signals that people can trust you. And it's not about telling people to trust you. We process whether we can trust someone through our emotions. We don't trust others by what they say, it's how they make us feel. It's their consistent action that show that they care about our wellbeing that determine whether we feel we can or cannot trust them.


In my research, I have found that there are eight signals that employees are constantly needing to receive positive feedback on, to trust their boss.

1. Match your actions to words

One of the most powerful human drivers is to live in alignment with who we believe are and whom we want to be. When our words and actions don’t match, it creates an integrity gap. People don’t trust us. In fact, the bigger the gap the more likely people around you will act in ways that go against what you’re trying to achieve.

The reason why matching our words and deeds is so critical is because we subconsciously process whether we can trust people in the part of the brain that has no capacity for language.  As previously mentioned, we don’t trust people by what they say, but how they make us feel.

Make sure you always do what you say you’re going to do. No excuses. Return phone calls and emails - otherwise it sends a message you don't care about people. Deliver work on time and at a high standard. Model the company values at all times. This builds authenticity because people see that your energy matches your intention. People need to be able to read you and see consistency in your behaviours, to feel comfortable around you.

2. Communicate emotional information 

As American psychologist Abraham Maslow taught in his hierarchy of needs, we can’t concern ourselves with higher goals (self-mastery and purpose) until we have the necessities of life. Those being physiological needs (food and water), physical safety and social connection. 

In a workplace, employees need confirmation that they are safe from harm and that their fellow workers are looking out for them. They need to feel connected and valued for their contribution. 

At the same time, employees need to believe the work they do matters, that they are making an impact and there is a clear future for them within the organisation. That is why a company purpose is so important. If done well, it clearly specifies how and why the company makes a positive impact to the world and shows that the company has a fundamental reason for existence beyond just making money. This is important to counteract the natural suspicion and cynicism within our society that business is all about making a profit. Employees and customers trust organisations when they can see evidence that the organisation cares. 

The reason a company purpose is so powerful is because it’s the why – the emotional connection the business has to the world. Humans are emotional beings and they buy into their workplace based on how much the purpose resonates with their own values. 

You can connect to people emotionally through linking the company purpose to their work and through your own work. It means communicating the why before talking about how a task is to be done. Only talking about tasks or processes can make you seem untrustworthy to those who are more people-focused.

3. Display Positive Body Language

Workplaces require leaders who reassure people that their emotional needs are being met through both verbal and nonverbal communication. Non-verbal communication includes using body language, eye contact, facial expressions and gestures, signals that help us interpret the real meaning and intent behind what someone is saying. 

And with people working from home, this has become critical because it’s easy to miss non-verbal signals that we notice when we are face to face. It is vital that leaders know how to communicate both verbally and non-verbally because this gets through to the part of the brain that manages trust – the limbic brain. The part of the brain that doesn’t understand language, but feelings. 

Make sure your body language is welcoming and inclusive. Greet your teammates every morning, not just on Fridays. Say hello to everyone that enters your Zoom meeting. When you're in a physical meeting, make sure your body language is open. Avoid crossing your arms and smile more. Be a good listener.

4. Improve your level of self-awareness

Leaders who are self-aware are more likely to recognise their strengths, weaknesses and blindspots.

A leader who is humble and able to apologise when they make a mistake sends out a lot of positive signals to the people around them that they can be trusted. It is so much easier to be around a leader who can laugh at themselves because it means they are less likely to attack others when they make a mistake.

Unfortunately, high levels of self-awareness is rare among leaders. According to a study by Dr Tasha Eurich, around 5-15% of leaders are self-aware. It means improving intrapersonal skills which take time and self-reflection. Few leadership courses cover this important skill. (If you are interested in learning more about how to improve your leadership self-awareness, take a look at my annual Tribe of Trusted Leaders leadership mastermind group).

5. Conduct regular work reviews

Scheduling regular reviews to debrief the success of a project sends a powerful signal to team members about the importance of identifying and learning from successes and failures together as a team. 

Create an environment of continuous improvement where there is no blame or criticism - only learning. This makes it more likely for employees to embrace feedback, be curious and learn more. 

Employees are more likely to trust a leader who they know will not punish them for lapses in good judgement or errors in their work. 

6. Be someone people can confide in

Every employee wants a leader who has their back. Someone they know won't turn against them in both good and bad times.

Make sure you are someone people know they can go to during the tough times or even when they don't know how to do something. Remember, it's not just telling people that it's safe to talk to you. You've got to show it. 

When someone trusts you enough to discuss their fears or personal issues make sure you show empathy to their situation. Take action if needed (and with their permission) and do not tell anyone else (unless they have allowed it). Never, ever dismiss their fears, get defensive or make them feel bad for sharing.

7. Communicate regularly

One of the biggest inhibitors to trusting a leader is when they don't set clear expectations and directives or fail to inform people regularly on what is going on (or even not). 

 Leaders need to regularly communicate:

  • where the business stands,
  • why work matters,
  • why a project/task is being undertaken,
  • why a project has been stalled, derailed or stopped,
  • what’s coming up next, and
  • how they plan to get everyone there.  
Leaders who are good at uniting everyone together know the best way to communicate with each individual at an emotional level to encourage buy-in. They reframe the risks so the risk averse can feel safe, they align the interests of those in other departments and focus on values to encourage alignment of thinking. They make sure not to send out mixed messages.
8. Remove roadblocks

Demonstrate that you care about your employees, by removing roadblocks and bottlenecks, so people can do their best work in service of a shared goal. This even includes removing toxic team members that give license for others to misbehave or perform poorly.  A team culture is created through what behaviours are tolerated.  If you allow bullying or poor standards, people will not trust you to create a safe workplace.

In companies, people get so used to roadblocks from poor decision making, communication or planning that they learn to work around issues.  This greatly reduces productivity and even morale. Provide your team with the right resources, tools, decisions, and support.

Regularly ask: “What information do you need from me or other leaders to make your job easier?”  Sometimes you might be the blocker, holding things up.  While another team is gumming up the works by not delivering on key data.  Get out there and talk to the team leader and sort out the issue.

Learning to Send out the Right Trust Signals

Creating a trusted team culture boils down to every employee knowing they can rely on every person around them.  It means everyone is committed to performing at a high level and helping their peers achieve as well. This is modelled by a trusted leader.
Remember, you can't talk your way into trust. You have to behave your way into it. What you do is far more powerful than what you say as a leader.

Leaders who lead with trust follow through on promises and hold others to account.  They communicate honestly and frequently. They help employees see the meaning behind their work and that they matter.  They create a safe environment for people to speak up and be themselves. The outcome is a fun, more enjoyable workplace where everyone works together to reach their goals.


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