Improve your perception as an empathetic, credible, and reliable leader
I recently flew out to give an off-site training for one of my clients and his leadership team. Ahead of this meeting, he sought input from his team, asking them what the most pressing topics were for them as managers. I don’t do these types of trainings often, and it was a great opportunity to hear from a variety of leaders within the organization.
A frequently mentioned topic was building trust—being seen as trustworthy leaders and advisors for their teams.
As a leader, it’s easy to view your relationship with your team and the broader organization in the context of goals and outcomes. But if you persist in this mindset, you’ll eventually find a lack of trust bubble to the surface.
One of the ways leaders at this organization are evaluated is by assessing them against the core leadership principles of the organization, including trustworthiness. But truly being a trusted leader goes beyond just being seen as trustworthy—it requires
a shift away from this transactional lens.
Instead, you must move toward strengthening relationships for mutual benefit. It’s important for leaders to establish that you’re credible, reliable, and empathetic—and you’re willing to put the needs of others above our own agendas.
The Trust Equation
In The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford, the authors provide a framework to help the reader assess just how trustworthy we are. It’s useful and eye-opening.
At this training, I shared what the authors call “the trust equation,” and asked the leaders in attendance to think of an important relationship that they feel is not in good shape, and use the trustworthiness equation to assess themselves, as well as the trustworthiness of the other party. This is how the equation works:
TRUSTWORTHINESS = [CREDIBILITY + RELIABILITY + EMPATHY]/SELF
I operate with the following definitions. You can adjust as you see fit, but make sure you’re operating with the same definitions and rating scale as your team and peers when utilizing this framework (in this case, 1=Never True; 5=Always True). The highest possible score is 15 (a 5 for each numerator trait and a 1 for the denominator trait.) The lowest score possible is 0.60, or 3/5.
Credibility Score –On a scale of 1-5*, how true is it that the individual knows what they’re talking about?
Reliability Score – On a scale of 1-5*, how true is it that the individual follows through on their commitments?
Empathy Score – On a scale of 1-5*, how true is it that the individual is willing to connect with others on a human level?
Self-Serving Score – On a scale of 1-5*, how true is it that the individual cares more about their agenda than they care about others?
Try this exercise for someone you have a great relationship with, for a relationship where you’d like to grow, and then try it for yourself—as you see yourself, and even as these other individuals see you.
We Weaken Trust with High Self-Orientation
When you were scoring yourself (or another person), did you notice just how important the denominator is? A high Self-Serving score can drastically reduce the overall trustworthiness score in this equation. This is a critical part of being perceived as a trusted leader.
When you are highly focused and oriented toward meeting your own needs, it detracts from your relationships and interactions in the workplace by breaking down trust. Just like it works in the equation, being seen as self-serving—that is, having a high self-orientation—detracts from your credibility and reliability, as well as reduces the perception that you are an empathetic leader.
A high self-orientation may look like a focus on looking good or being perceived positively. Or you might be giving answers too quickly without understanding the situation or problem before you. It may also be seen as an unwillingness to say, “I don’t know,” or needing to have the last word.
Lower Self-Orientation and Build Trust
Trust is a critical piece of gaining and maintaining a leadership position in any organization. If you’re struggling with a high self-orientation, I encourage you to shift your focus outward. It will be uncomfortable at times, but it’s critical to building trust with your team.
Here are a few tips to lower your self-orientation:
Exhibit genuine curiosity and patiently ask open-ended, probing questions such as, “What is your perspective on this?”
Listen reflectively, summarizing what you’ve heard to demonstrate you’ve understood their intent.
Let the other person fill in more than 2/3 of the empty spaces in the conversation.
Trust your ability to add value after listening, rather than trying to do so during listening.
Accept responsibility for failed communications and breakdowns, asking yourself “What’s my responsibility in this?”
Wait until the other person explicitly asks for advice, opinions and suggestions.
Behave as if your intention is to create a mutually beneficial outcome. Speaking your intention should be secondary and congruent with your mood and your behavior.
If you’re receiving feedback that others don’t trust you or perceive you as self-serving, it may warrant a conversation that involves the trustworthiness equation. Ask others to score you, and use their feedback to intentionally change your behavior. Seek feedback from individuals who know you well first. This will help you get in the habit of seeking and receiving feedback without needing to respond immediately. Focus on thanking individuals for their feedback, then take time to reflect privately on what actions you can take. This practice will require you to place trust in others with humility and courage, but it will also help others see that you are genuinely seeking to improve and build trust with your team. That openness and willingness to seek feedback and make a change will begin the shift not only in the way others see you, but in lowering your own self-orientation. Trusting relationships enable collaboration, communication, and productivity. I feel confident that you’ll start to see positive effects in your work relationships, as well as in your personal life.