CU Management – Leadership Matters: How We Build and Break Trust

Although many of us have had to deal at some point with a senior manager who seemed to lack morals, empathy or sincerity, the majority of organizational leaders are not compulsive liars and cheats, out to pull one over on the rest of us. Most leaders are healthy, well-adjusted adults who have invested greatly for the opportunity to contribute to their chosen profession and industry. They are often highly educated, competent and want to do the right thing. They are you. Why, then, does a lack of trust plague so many professional relationships, teams, departments and organizations?

As we work a leadership level, we might notice that we still have these kinds of thoughts:

  • “He is so frustrating to deal with.”
  • “I don’t like her.”
  • “We can’t count on the sales team.”

But what we are really saying is that the person or people involved have not fulfilled some necessary level of trust:

  • “He is so frustrating to deal with because I don’t trust him to follow through.
  • “I don’t like her because I don’t trust that she has my best interest at heart.
  • “We can’t count on the sales team because I don’t trust that they know our product well enough.

Trust isn’t important—it is everything.

With trust, business moves quickly and can be done with a handshake. Trust allows us to feel safe, like we know the rules of the game, and if we follow them, we can and will be successful. We thrive when our world feels logical, reliable and knowable. With this kind of safety, we can direct our attention to innovation and execution without fear that we are putting ourselves or others at risk. When we know there are things and people we can count on, we can turn our attention to other matters.

Trust frees us up.

Without trust, everything slows, or never actually reaches completion. If I cannot trust you, I am distracted by a need to mitigate my own risk. I will spend time keeping a paper trail or thinking about how I can most effectively work around you.

We often think of trust as binary: either I trust you or I don’t. However, trust is complex. I can trust your intention to do great work but perhaps not your competence. Or, I might trust your skills and ability but not your reliability to come through for me when you said you would. (“He is the very best, but he takes forever to get things done.”) Or maybe I trust your skills and follow-through, but I fear you only care about yourself. (“I doubt she will tell the board this was my idea.”)

Thus, we might think of trust in terms of the following:

  • Intention: Do I trust that you care about me and my ultimate success?
  • Competence: Do I trust that you have the talent, knowledge, and skills to deliver what you say you can?
  • Reliability: Do I trust that you will do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it?

We can each behave in ways that build trust and in ways that break it. Our everyday actions as well as our general attitude and behaviors teach others how trustworthy we are.

Trust can so easily be built that it is actually a shame we let these fundamentals slip. We build trust when we:

Practice these leadership fundamentals to consistently convey your intentions, competency and reliability.


Trust really can be established quickly and, of course, it grows over time. Unfortunately, breaking trust is even easier. We have all seen how one careless act can destroy decades of trust. We break trust daily without any awareness that we are doing so. If you hold a powerful position, few will be brave enough to let you know when this happens, but don’t deceive yourself: The people around you see everything and are constantly assessing you.

If you engage in any of the following behaviors, however subtly, it is hurting you and your ability to be successful. We break trust when we:

  • arrive late, unprepared or fail to show at all;
  • hoard or conceal information;
  • strive only for our own advancement and fear the success of others;
  • fail to do what we say we are going to do;
  • treat others in ways we ourselves would not wish to be treated;
  • interact primarily through email and copy others to show them who’s boss;
  • ignore the questions we don’t want to answer;
  • conceal problems and concerns;
  • blame others or otherwise abdicate accountability;
  • claim others’ work as our own;
  • avoid having the real conversations directly, talk poorly of others behind their backs and/or allow gossip, name-calling or inappropriate criticism; and
  • fail to communicate up, down and across the organization as is relevant and beneficial to the priorities and needs of others and the business as a whole.

When we act in political, petty or childish ways, it breaks trust with our colleagues and employees and hurts our ability to truly succeed. In order to lead well, we must become the kind of leader we ourselves seek: We must care about others’ personal well-being and professional success as much as we care about our own. We must become the best version of ourselves, the kind of person others know can be trusted in all ways—our intentions, our competence and our reliability. Luckily, this is all easy to do.

As published in CU Management in partnership with my US-firm Syntrina Leadership.

About the Author

Susanne Biro is a coach to C-suite and executive level leaders. She is the founder of Inner Life Leadership, an app for business professionals who want to reach an unprecedented level of personal understanding and corresponding leadership (and life) success. Susanne is an author, executive development program designer, facilitator, Forbes & CEO Magazine contributing writer, and a TEDx and keynote speaker.

For over two decades, Susanne has worked internationally with senior-level leaders in some of the world’s best companies. Whether coaching one-on-one or authoring, designing, and delivering leadership programs, her passion is the same: to help leaders reach their next level.

Susanne can be reached at 604.864.5408 or via email at


Our world has changed, rapidly and in unexpected ways. As the crisis hit, I offered and held pro bono sessions with leaders from around the world. And I want to continue to do what I can to help. As a result, I now offer hourly sessions to ensure leaders everywhere can quickly get the perspective, clarity and focus they need to lead themselves, and therefore others, well during these challenging and uncertain times.

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