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Trust has long been considered a factor in leadership. However, recent research suggests that in addition to a desirable leadership trait trust can be an important strategic competitive advantage. This research proposes that leaders who develop relationships based on trust can improve their work community's performance. Trust, they say, must be deserved. Leaders who trust too much may not only be fooled but also may damage their work communities. Those inner leaders who do not trust enough can become isolated and create a detrimental work environment. Optimal trust is based on prudent relationships and is shaped by a variety of factors, such as the trustworthiness of the leader and extant social norms (Fairholm, 1994).

Being able to develop trusting relationships is particularly important when inner leaders and their work-community members have interdependent relationships with other stakeholders, such as their suppliers, industry partners, and customers. Such interdependencies are increasingly common in today's work communities. When corporations are committed to such relationships, they must seek operating inner leaders who are willing to trust and are themselves trustworthy and credible.

Becoming Trustworthy

Inner leaders cannot demand trust from others. It must be earned. And that takes time. While leaders can ask others for their trust, they cannot enforce that demand simply because they have the authority to hire and fire. Trust is a gift, given freely by others because it is based in their confidence in their leaders, their respect, even their admiration for them.

Developing trust relationships, like creating cultures, shares common elements since trust is an inextricable part of any culture. As they strive to be both trusting and trustworthy, inner leaders need to master several specific techniques to become experts in the technique of trust. Learning to trust asks inner leaders to first become trustworthy. Not until their followers see that a leader's words and deeds are true (authentic) will they offer their trust. As this part of the trust relationship develops, leaders can take actions that communicates their trust of followers, the other half of the trust relationship.

Inner leaders prepare themselves to be expert in the trust technique by mastering the following elements of the trust relationship.


Several factors that condition the process of developing trust have been noted by a variety of writers. For example, Bennis and Nanus (1985) say leading so followers can predict the leader's actions or behavior builds trust. Most writers agree that leading on the basis of consistent and persistent open communication is essential in the trust-development process. Sinatar (1988) suggests that leader–follower cooperation is another key to developing trust. He also says that a gentle manner is important and that congruent leader actions, where both word and deed convey the same message, is essential. And, Greenleaf (1977) says a leader's record of service to followers is critical in defining the leader's trust relationship with followers.


To the degree that the leader is predictable, to that degree he or she builds trustworthiness. Erratic and or irregular behavior limits trust. Followers appear to trust their leaders only as they can confidently predict what they will do in a given situation. Trust and predictability also imply truth. People trust when they are confident that the relationship will produce a true result—that they will get what they expect.

Acceptance of Self and Others

Trust is part of open social relationships. Inner leaders convey their trustworthiness as they are willing to be open about themselves and others. Such leaders are willing to communicate their strengths and, just as important, their weaknesses. As they communicate their true selves, they encourage followers to behave similarly. Work-community decision making is therefore easier, and determination of joint aims and methods of accomplishing them is facilitated. Mutual acceptance also encourages intrapersonal and interpersonal control, the need to participate in work-community action, and appreciation of difference in others.


Inner leaders' assumptions about life dictate their professional actions (Barns, 1981). Barnes identified three assumptions that guide people's trust behavior and that of their leaders. The first assumption is that important issues fall into two opposing camps exemplified by either–or thinking. The second is the idea that hard data and facts are better than soft ideas. And finally, there is the assumption that the world in general is an unsafe place. These assumptions tend to lead us away from full trust of others' actions, words, or statements. When inner leaders act opposite to these three assumptions, they increase the level of follower trust in them.

Authentic Caring

When followers see the inner leader's behavior as both consistent and caring, they can develop positive assumptions about the relationship; and this kind of relationship is the basis of the expectation that accompanies trust. When followers have a perception that their leaders authentically care for them (Gibb, 1978), see the leader as open, and feel that he or she is personally interested in them, they are inclined to trust him or her. While caring is a risk relationship, inner leaders' willingness to demonstrate caring enhances their inherent trustworthiness. Fairholm (1991) says trust protects and heightens the dignity of followers. Caring leader behavior communicates inner leaders' desire to serve, that is, their willingness to minister to the needs followers have. As this behavior becomes a routine part of the leader's relationships with a follower, the work community changes and becomes more supportive of interpersonal trust.

Ethical Considerations

The idea of ethics is imbedded in the idea of culture, custom, and character (Sims, 1992). Ethical behavior is that behavior work-community members accept as right and good as opposed to wrong, bad, or evil. In the work community it is sometimes institutionalized in a document codifying the work community's values and norms. It is also reflected in the institutional structures, interpersonal relationships, and sanction systems. Most often, and most influential, the community's ethical foundation is a function of the values implicitly revealed in its leader. The inner leader's actions, decisions, and comments more than anything else determine the level of follower trust in him or her.

Ethical leadership is a task of setting and enforcing one ethical standard as opposed to all other possible standards, some of which also may be good. It asks the leader to articulate a clear, compelling, and useful set of values to guide the action of individuals in the work community. Once attained, a given leader's trustworthiness must be continually maintained, improved, and reenergized. Any substantive change in trust risks a change in the ethical climate as well. Inner leaders ensure that their ethical values foundation keeps pace with changes in the work community. As people with differing ethical standards come into the work force, the leader's challenge is to build a new ethics that is founded in the past and is responsive to the future.

Individual Character

We can also view a leader's trustworthiness as either a characteristic of the individual, a factor in the situation, or both (Klimoski and Karol, 1976). For Klimoski and Karol, trust is a way of life. They view trust as an expectancy held by individuals that they can rely upon the word, promise, or statement of another person. In their view, trust is a hallmark of a healthy work community (Terry, 1995). The level of trust the leader creates by his or her actions in the work community affects member willingness to solve problems creatively. It also affects the degree of defensiveness present in the workplace (Gibb, 1961). Meadow, Parnes, and Reese (1959) suggest that a trusted leader affects the degree of problem-solving effectiveness of the work community. For them, a worker who does not trust others will distort, conceal, or disguise feelings or opinions that he or she believes will increase his or her exposure in the work community. They also correlate high leader trustworthiness levels with honesty. Trustworthiness is critical in the middle of the work community where the leader desires spontaneous behavior and where frankness is essential.

Learning to Trust Others

Developing trustworthiness is difficult. Developing a capacity to trust others is equally difficult. It is not that the techniques are complicated, they are not. The problem is one of mental willingness to risk trusting others. Handy (1976) says to trust another asks the inner leader to take a chance on the other person. Trust is a risk relationship that increases the inner leader's vulnerability. And's (1972) work, including a survey of 4,200 supervisors, suggests that high trust relationships stimulate higher performance. Handy revived Rogers's (1964) assertion that we can causally link trust to increased originality and emotional stability.

Trust or distrust is cumulative—the more the inner leader trusts others the more trusting the overall relationship. Alternatively, the more leaders distrust others, the more distrust is present in the work community. Breaking this cycle is difficult and can involve the leader in either of two sets of relationship actions. In the first, the follower strives to gain the leader's trust. This is hard for the follower to do. It requires maturity, strength, and perseverance. The second approach is for leaders to give their trust. This also takes strength.

Trusting behavior is that which shows a willingness to be vulnerable to another person (Rossiter and Pearch, 1975). The mental state that allows the inner leader to trust another person is reflected in an attitude of faith or confidence in that person. This faith is such that the leader believes the other person will behave in ways that will not produce negative results. Thus, to trust another person is to have an unquestioned belief in and reliance on someone or something. Confidence implies trust based on good reasons, evidence, or experience. Trust is a condition that asks inner leaders to be willing to share their intimate feelings.

The level of trust is contingent on several situational factors. One involves settings in which the trusted person's behavior affects the leader in nontrivial ways. Willingness to trust others also develops in situations where the leader can predict with some accuracy a given behavior or result from his or her actions. In trust situations, inner leaders need to be able to predict with some degree of confidence the trusted one's response. A final condition of the trust situation that Rossiter and Pearch (1975) describe has to do with alternative options. Trust is possible when the trusting persons can do more than trust. That is, they can increase or decrease their vulnerability to the other.

Trusting others also flows from self-trust. Effective inner leaders have confidence in their own ability, integrity, and ethical fidelity. This kind of self-trust comes as a result of several characteristics leaders exhibit. Among them, the most important are knowledge, responsibility, and faith. Knowledge refers to the stored truth leaders gain resulting from their cumulative learning and experience. Responsibility defines the inner leader's acceptance of accountability for self and for his or her work and other actions. Faith is confidence in the correctness, the appropriateness of a course of action, and the ability to attain desired goals.

Self-trust lets leaders trust others, It helps insure loyalty, cooperation, efficiency, and satisfaction. The inner leader's willingness to change, which is also important in learning to trust others, is dependent largely on the trust levels present in their relationships with other communities—besides the immediate work community. Feelings of trust develop initially by the way in which two people interact. These feelings become established only after a series of incidents that prove the intrinsic level of trust in the relationships. Established work community values also influence the development of feelings conducive to trusting others. However, it is only though direct interaction that inner leaders develop a deep conviction that others are worthy of their trust.

There are several critical personal characteristics inner leaders develop to facilitate their capacity to trust others.


People of integrity are honest, authentic, and dependable. Their motives are known. They are open and willing to expose details of self with others and share how the other person's behavior is affecting them. They are feeling, communicate truthfully and authentically about who they are and what they think is important. They are also discreet, never violating a confidence. Inner leaders develop these characteristics in sufficient strength to let them trust the words and action of others. Their task is also seeing these qualities in followers when they may not always be obvious.


It takes time—a long time—to learn to truly trust someone else. While inner leaders may volunteer their trust on first meeting, a fully trusting relationship has to mature out of the matrix of shared experiences. Trusting others is not a one-time event. It rarely sprouts full-blown at the instant of the leader's first contact with a follower. It is the result of a process of interaction that matures over time. This element of a trust relationship makes development of patience a critical virtue for inner leaders.


Trust is, in part at least, a present from one person to another. Inner leaders trust others because they care or out of a desire to help others. Leaders give their trust to others. It cannot be taken. And leaders can withdraw it also on their decision, not that of the other persons. Bestowing trust is a volitional act, not a constrained one. It is a gift, an act of service, an endowment, an offering even.


Trust consists of (1) action that increases the inner leader's vulnerability to another, (2) whose behavior is under his or her control, and (3) in situations where the penalty the leader suffers if the follower abuses his or her vulnerability is greater than the benefit the leader might gain if the followers does not abuse that vulnerability. Trusting others is a risk relationship, and the risk increases as inner leaders increase their level and scope of trust in other persons or things.


Inner leaders build trust or tear it down by the cumulative actions they take and the words they speak. And their trust of others is based on the developing record of authenticated interaction built up in their relations with followers.

Building trust is an active process, not a passive one. Actions more than reputation ensure both leaders' trustworthiness and their willingness to trust others.


Friendship is a composite of relationships such as shared values and experiences, compatibility, pleasure in associations with another person and comfort in his or her company. These and similar feelings contribute to the presence of trust and its depth and scope. Logic, as well as anecdotal evidence, confirms that friends trust each other more than enemies do. Rogers (1964) suggest that friendship relations contribute to the helping relationship that is founded in large part on mutual trust. Trusting leaders find friends among their coworkers and base their relationships, at least in part, on friendship.

Personal Competence

Trusting leaders place confidence in their followers' abilities, expertise, and skills. They have confidence in their followers' competence to work with them and one another. Inner leaders value their followers' overall sense of the task and their common sense, expertise, experiences, and inventiveness.


The followers' capacity to make decisions that are perceived to be right, correct, and appropriate by inner leaders increases their trust quotient with them. Sound ethical and moral professional judgment is affected by a wide variety of factors, only some of which the leader can impact. The following is illustrative of the kinds of concerns making up the inner leader's action agenda in helping followers become worthy of trust: ethical decisions, personal self-interest, work-community goals, friendships, the norms of the larger society, personal morality, and applicable laws, rules, and regulations (Sims, 1992).

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