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Why trust is vital to lead

If you ask most people which trait they think is more important in a leader, trust or competence, the majority will answer competence. In general, we want other people to see us as being competent; yet, the trait we most look for in others when we meet them is trust (or rather, warmth).

So, what’s the significance of this for leaders?

Well, it turns out there is a lot; and, if like most, you are a leader that wants to be seen as being competent, you could be doing yourself a massive disservice, read on to discover why.

Harvard Social Psychologist, Amy Cuddy (of Power-Posing TED-talk fame), explains that while professionals want to be seen as being competent and reliable, our biology means that the most important trait for making a good impression and leading people is, you guessed it, trust. This is a key finding for leaders: if you want to influence people—which, as a leader, you surely do—then you need to have trust first; without it, you will likely be seen as manipulative and provoke feelings of envy. Disturbingly, and to illustrate the extent of her findings, Cuddy points out that throughout the last century, victims of genocide have been minorities that were seen as being competent, but not trustworthy. Now, we wouldn’t want to suggest that your team is planning on mutiny, but in a society with such an ingrained Tall Poppy Syndrome, you probably want to spend a little extra time on cultivating your trustworthiness.

So, what practical steps can you take to build others’ trust in you?

  1. Speak to people as though they are a friend. Aim for a tone that expresses a friendly and no-nonsense approach, a softer deeper tone. Open up and share a personal story (an appropriate one) and show a genuine interest in the other person—studies show that just 5 minutes of chit-chat boosts negotiation outcomes.
  2. Validate other’s feelings. Show that you understand them and can share a common perspective; if they see you as being similar, then they are more likely to trust in you.
  3. Smile...genuinely. Smiling signals a friendly intent, and thus trustworthiness; but remember, a fake smile fools no-one. So, think of something to be happy about and share that smile with your audience

Machiavelli theorised that it is best to be both loved and feared, but as it is hard to be both, the better strategy is to be feared. It turns out that he is half right: the ideal is to be seen as both trustworthy and competent, and as Cuddy’s research verifies, achieving both is difficult. But, we now know that when applied to an organisational context Machiavelli got it wrong on the second count: when it comes to the most important trait, it’s trust that ticks the boxes.

Hope you have a great day, and if you get that chance, grab a coffee and watch the 20-min TED talk linked here--while there focus is on start-ups, there are some key lessons that are applicable to all businesses.


As a manager I found achieving SYNERGY’s HBDI program helpful in understanding my team’s work preferences. Especially useful was our team map which helped to identify growth areas and what skills and abilities needed to be brought into the team. We all found the program useful and I would recommend it to my colleagues and clients.

Darren Mottolini - Manager, Landgate