The Strengths Trap: How Overplaying Your Strengths Harms Trust (Part II)

Part I of this blog described how over-emphasizing the trust-building factors in the Trust Equation without balancing your self-orientation can actually hurt your trustworthiness. It also identified many internal and external triggers that might increase self-orientation.

In this post, we explore specific actions you can take to avoid over-playing your strengths.

The Goldilocks Effect

Source: “Stop Overdoing Your Strengths,” Kaplan and Kaiser, HBR Magazine, February 2009

In a Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Overdoing Your Strengths” (HBR Magazine, February 2009), authors Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser explored the impact of the leadership trait forcefulness on leaders’ overall effectiveness.

The plotted results of their research shows that overplaying a strength can be just as dangerous as underplaying it.

When it comes to being trustworthy, optimizing the trust equation may seem akin to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: what’s too little, what’s too much, and what’s just right?

Self-orientation is an important counterweight to overplaying our trust-building strengths.

The key is balance: being able to demonstrate your strengths while keeping your self-orientation low so your overall trustworthiness increases.

Managing Self-Orientation

Lowering self-orientation to combat over-playing our strengths starts with self-awareness, noticing when internal or external pressures trigger us to focus on ourselves. Internal pressures include things like ego, fear, complacency, and personal agendas. External pressures include things like deadlines, sales and performance targets, distractions, and issues at work or home.

The antidote to overplaying our strengths is lowering self-orientation, first by recognizing when your self-orientation is high, then shifting your focus to something other than yourself.

While it sounds simple, this takes ego strength.

Once you are aware of what triggers your self-orientation to go up, you can adapt your behavior. Here are some tips to avoid over-playing each trust-building strengths:

Counter arrogance with humility.

Humility is often interpreted as timidity, but a more appropriate interpretation is recognizing how you fit into something larger than yourself. Two ways to practice humility are:

  • Open-mindedness – hear others out fully and without judgment before proposing a solution. Respect their knowledge and contributions and consider their inputs. People will see your open-mindedness as increasing your credibility.
  • Curiosity – explore their point of view with them before offering a different perspective. A great opening phrase might be, “Help me understand where you’re coming from.”

Counter control with tolerance.

Tolerance means accepting something you don’t agree with; it also means enduring something that feels unpleasant. When we are fully committed to one particular way of doing something, it’s hard to accept – or even see – viable alternatives. Two ways to practice tolerance are:

  • Check your perspective – when you find yourself struggling because things aren’t happening the way you think they should, pause and ask yourself if your approach is the only valid one. If the overall goal is being met, even if it isn’t how you expect or want it to be, then consider changing your perspective instead of trying to change to situation.
  • Grace – give others (and yourself) grace to make mistakes, to change the plan, and to be able to achieve the goal in their own way. Trusting others requires relinquishing some control. If you never give up control to someone else, what might they infer about how much you trust them?

Counter appeasement and intrusiveness with sharing.

When our natural tendency is to create connection with others, we may push too hard for them to share with us, or we may feel pressure to agree with them (regardless of our point of view). Two ways to practice sharing are:

  • Go first To avoid appeasing: if you tend to keep quiet when you disagree with what someone says, consider sharing your point of view before others share theirs so you don’t have to worry about seeming disagreeable if your point of view differs. To avoid intrusiveness: before asking someone to share something personal, share something about yourself so they feel more comfortable sharing in return.
  • Create context – it’s easy to forget that others don’t necessarily know what we are thinking. Create context by framing your perspective or questions in a positive way, focusing on the mutual benefit to you and the other person. It will feel less threatening to you and to them.

To borrow from a famous C.S. Lewis quote on humility, low self-orientation is not thinking less of ourselves; it is thinking of ourselves less.

How will you lower your self-orientation to let your trust-building strengths shine through?

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

The Strengths Trap: How Overplaying Your Strengths Harms Trust (Part I)

Playing to our strengths can be seductive. We all want to feel we are presenting our best selves, and that naturally leads us to emphasize those things at which we excel. It’s often how we define our professional roles, our careers, even ourselves.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Some modern psychometric tools are built around the idea that individuals are more successful and fulfilled when they focus on developing their strengths rather than trying to fix weaknesses. Gallup’s CliftonStrengths©, for example, claims that, by identifying and leveraging their strengths, individuals can “enhance their performance, engagement, and overall satisfaction in various aspects of their lives.”

That may be good advice in general. But is it possible to rely too much on our strengths?

When we’re talking about building trust, the answer is a clear, “Yes.”

More Is Not Always Better

Over-emphasizing or relying too heavily on a single factor to build trust can become a liability. To understand why, we need to explore the relationship of each trust-building variable with self-orientation.

In the Trust Equation (source: The Trusted Advisor by Maister, Green, and Galford, The Free Press, 2000), the factors in the numerator (Credibility, Reliability and Intimacy) build trust, while the single factor in the denominator (Self-Orientation) inhibits or diminishes trust.

The Trust Equation: Trustworthiness equals the sum of credibility plus reliability plus intimacy, divided by self-orientation

In this equation, when numerator – the sum of the factors that build trust – increases and the denominator is constant or decreases, trustworthiness goes up.

It’s when we start to separate out the factors in the numerator that we can identify the risk. Although the Trust Equation is a heuristic and not a strict mathematical formula, we could rewrite the equation as the sum of each numerator over the single denominator:

The Trust Equation: Trustworthiness equals Credibility divided by self-orientation, plus Reliability divided by self-orientation, plus intimacy divided by self-orientation.

Simple common sense tells us that relying too heavily on a trust-building strength can backfire, with consequences for our own behavior and how others may perceive us:

  • Over-playing Credibility can lead to intellectual rigidity; others may perceive you as arrogant or closed-minded.
  • Over-playing Reliability can lead to overcontrolling; others may perceive you as domineering or overly-focused on details.
  • Over-playing Intimacy can lead to emotional exhaustion or appeasement; others may perceive you as intrusive or, at the other extreme, lacking ambition.

Why It Happens

It would seem that increasing each of the elements in the numerator would increase trust. But that only works if we lower or keep constant the denominator, self-orientation. The more we focus on our strength, the more our self-orientation increases, which diminishes the trust we are working to build.

Remember that when we have something that works well for us, it’s natural to fall back on that strength. When we’re under pressure, whether internal or external, it triggers an increase in self-orientation, which heightens the instinct to flex our strength.

The table below lists some likely internal triggers for each trust-building factor; the external factors are potential triggers regardless of the trust-building strength. The internal triggers typically fall into three categories: fear- or ego-based (concern about what they think about you), complacency (over-confidence in your strength), or achieving your agenda (getting what you want from the situation).

Common Triggers of High Self-Orientation

Self-Awareness: The Antidote to Self-Orientation

The presence of any of these triggers should be a warning sign that self-orientation might be on the rise. Once you recognize that a trigger is present, you can take action to lower your self-orientation to build trust, or at least to avoid diminishing it.

In Part II, we’ll explore what actions you can take to avoid over-playing your strengths.

Resources to Build Your Trust Skills:

Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

I recently listened to Howard Stern’s interview with (Sir) Paul McCartney. One part stood out. Howard asked Paul about multiple instances where John Lennon had been cruel towards McCartney; didn’t he feel treated unfairly, hurt, resentful, Howard asked?

Paul essentially replied that no, that was just John being John, that once you accepted that as part of his personality, it was not hard to move on from such moments. After all, as McCartney reminded Stern, John Lennon had had a fairly difficult upbringing, and it would have been hard not to have been scarred.

Stern complimented McCartney on his generosity of spirit, but remained skeptical; “Sometimes you’ve just got to protect yourself,” he said. McCartney didn’t contradict Howard, but made it clear that his earlier statement stood – that was just John being John, and once you accepted it as part of the package of half of the greatest songwriting team of all time, it wasn’t hard to continue without feeling harmed.

What Paul McCartney spoke to there is what I learned some time ago as an OBG (Oldie But Goodie) one-liner (I’ll have several more OBG’s to share in this post). And yes, it has something to do with trust; we’ll get there. The core idea is that you’re always going to be hurt. But, how long you let that hurt simmer and fester is not a function of the degree of hurt, or of the inflictor of the pain, but of our own ability to get over things.

Suffering Is Optional

I’ve seen a few extreme cases over the years – infidelity, loss of a loved one, needless cruelty by a stranger to a beloved pet – where the “victim” was able to recover in what most of us would consider a remarkably short period of time – a matter of days in those cases. And I do mean recover – fully. To forgive (while not forgetting); to be free of ill will and obsession with the harm done.

Suffering, in such cases, is closely tied up with concepts like blame and resentment. We indulge ourselves with blame and resentment at our own peril. Another of my favorite OBG’s: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” They never do, but we continue to suffer – at our own hands, because resentment and suffering are, past some initial point, matters of our own choosing, self-inflicted.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, in a memorable TED Talk, describes how this is a choice available to all of us. Another OBG, this one from friend Phil McGee: “Blame is captivity, responsibility is freedom.” Blaming others is just another neurotic obsession which enslaves us; freedom comes when we accept personal responsibility for what is our doing, and let go the rest.

The “letting go” part is expressed in yet another OBG, this one from the religious tradition: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” Blaming is yet another form of faux vengeance, of us attempting to play God by acting like we’re in control of what we’re powerless over. You don’t have to be an atheist to know that playing God is cosmically inappropriate behavior.

The Tie to Trust

And what’s this got to do with trust? Suffering, by this way of thinking, is an internal obsession. It represents the height of self-absorption, or high self-orientation in the Trust Equation. High self-orientation reduces trustworthiness. It traps us in our own interior representation of reality, and keeps us from virtues like empathy, curiosity, and ability to connect with others.

But reduced trustworthiness is not the end of it. Suffering also keeps us trapped in a self-reinforcing circle of paranoia and suspicion of others, thereby reducing our ability to trust others. If we can’t trust others, the odds of them trusting us are dramatically reduced. Ergo suffering reduces net trust.

Nobody has the power to take away your ability to suffer. You can indulge in it if you choose. But you can also choose not to suffer. And nobody has the power to take that away from you either.

To end on another OBG one-liner, this one from William Shakespeare: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Choose wisely.

Are You Self-Promotion Avoidant?

Have you ever felt compelled to share positive information about yourself with a boss or supervisor and – instead – developed lock-jaw, unable to get the words out? Your mind starts to spin into thoughts like, “What if it just sounds arrogant? I don’t want to be perceived as an egomaniac!”

And so, in an instant, you talk yourself out of sharing information that can be valuable to you AND the organization as a whole, all because we’re culturally conditioned to avoid self-promotion.

Self-promotion can be Good

Sharing strengths and successes can help organizations identify and understand how to leverage their employee base in the best way to achieve great outcomes. If leaders don’t know how their employees are succeeding and what their strengths and interests are, they don’t know how to leverage, motivate and properly develop them.

The result of not sharing our strengths and successes is unfulfilled team members, disengagement and even lack of innovation.

So Why Does It Feel Bad?

While we can rationally understand the very real benefits, most of us still avoid self-promotion because it seems so, well…self-centered. That avoidance stems from fear – a roadblock that puts a hard stop to being our most authentic, thriving selves.

Allowing our fear to constrain our actions is an indicator of high self-orientation. It may seem paradoxical, but when you are silent about your accomplishments, you are putting yourself first by avoiding what you fear: being seen as arrogant or egotistical.

And it’s not just the person being silent who suffers. Managers, supervisors, leaders and stakeholders are left in the dark about the untapped talent right in front of them. When your strengths finally do come to light you will likely hear, “I wish I would have known earlier!”

Overcoming Under-promotion

The first step to addressing this challenge requires a mindset shift.  Our mindset, drives our behaviors which in turn drive our results.  It is easy to fall into the trap of believing self-promotion is a bad thing because it is “all about us” or too self-oriented. Balance out that thinking by asking yourself, “What are the benefits to others?”

If you’re still skeptical, make a list of all the things – good and bad – that might happen if you share your successes, for you and for others. It might look something like this:

Benefits Pitfalls
  • My team lead knows more about my experience
  • My teammates might hear something that helps resolve a problem they’re facing
  • My boss knows what kind of challenge I like
  • I get recognized for my contributions
  • Etc.  …
  • They might think I’m arrogant
  • They might not think I’m as good as I say
  • Etc. …

Focus primarily on what sharing your accomplishments provides others, but don’t forget to include the impact to you, as well.

Appreciate the Positive

The second step to overcoming this very common hurdle is to become aware of negativity bias, which is defined as, “Our proclivity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” (

Here’s an example:

You have worked for weeks on a big client presentation. It was a huge success… your boss and co-workers are giving you tons of praise. In response to the accolades, you bring up how the presentation slides froze for a short time. Everything else went off without a hitch, but your focus is on exaggerating the small hiccup that didn’t have much of an impact.

The next time you are in this type of situation, train yourself to stay positive with this two-step approach:

  1. FIRST, identify 3 things that went well. What are you proud of? To what did your client or teammates respond positively? When did you feel energized? Sometimes just getting through a tough presentation is a win. Sometimes it’s seeing the spark of understanding as you explain a new idea, or hearing the team start talking excitedly about how the project turned out.
  2. Next, look for what can be improved. Think about what would make your presentation better or ask your teammates for feedback. Focusing on improvement versus what went wrong is key. You can’t change what already happened, but you can learn from it.

Train your mind to go to the positive immediately, and the negative won’t take up so much headspace. This will also help you become more comfortable sharing your successes with others.

Get comfortable “Tooting Your Own Horn”

Like with any habit, it takes discipline and time to feel natural. But if you practice these two techniques, you will notice your mindset shift to, “I’m not ‘selling myself’, instead I’m sharing pertinent information that helps my boss and the leaders of the company do what is best for the entire organization.”

Of course, when it comes to advocating for yourself, it’s important to be realistic about what is self-promotion and what may be arrogance or egotism. Be self-aware and humble, and consider not just what to share, but how to talk about it.

When done in a way that comes from low self-orientation and authenticity, you can drive your career success and fulfillment, leading to greater performance for your team, the organization and your clients.

Don’t Steal Your Client’s Spotlight

A question I often ask when running leadership development programs is, “How many of you know people who are ‘gold medal’ listeners?” Usually about one-third of the people in the audience raise their hands.

Only one-third. Less than half the room. We can – and we must – do better.

We all know people who like to talk about themselves – a lot! They usurp entire conversations, coffee breaks, dinners, and meetings talking about themselves. People who love the sound of their own voice and who desperately need to be introduced to the question mark.

The really scary part is, if you don’t know someone like that, that person may be YOU!

Hearing Others

Trusted advisors know the value of listening. Dale Carnegie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People) has a timeless quote:

“…you can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

And The Trusted Advisor author Charles H. Green offers this caution in his blog, Is Self-orientation Killing Your Trustworthiness?

When operating from high self-orientation, we do not hear others. We do not hear their questions, desires, fears, or emotions in general. The noise inside our head drowns them out.

So how do we show up as a “gold medal” listener? Like many things in trust-building, it’s a combination of having the right mindset and applying the right skills.

The Spotlight Mindset

Think about the last time you went to a live performance – a play, or a concert. There was someone behind the scenes whose job it was to make sure the performers were always in the spotlight; that they could always be seen.

While the skill of the spotlight operator is important, the spotlight itself is a tool to illuminate the performers. The attention shouldn’t be on the person running the spotlight, it’s all about the person in the spotlight.

In conversation, listening is our “spotlight.”

When we are attentive, curious and acknowledge what we hear from our clients, we allow them to feel truly seen. When we draw that attention to ourselves, on the other hand, we steal the spotlight from them.

Just like in the theatre, when our focus is on anything other than our client, they fade into the darkness.

For most of us, we aren’t even aware that we are stealing the spotlight. It’s usually the result of something we’ve done with the best of intentions. We want to connect with the other person by sharing a similar experience of our own, or we want to reassure them we are knowledgeable and capable, or maybe there’s a misunderstanding of an important point that needs to be clarified.

Connecting back to Dale Carnegie, being interested rather than interesting keeps the spotlight on the other person.

Spotlight Skills

Even with the best intentions, it’s hard to connect the right mindset to outcomes if we lack the skills. The basic skills for a client conversation are fairly simple:

Be prepared. Do some research (LinkedIn is a great resource) so you know a little bit about the person before you talk.

Slow down.  Don’t be in a rush to prove yourself, or show how funny or likeable or smart you are: your turn will come.

Be curious. Don’t take everything the client says at face value; dig into the context to truly understand what their experience is.

Ask questions. Get them talking about themselves, their goals and challenges.

Just mastering the basics should qualify you as a good listener. And for many people that’s enough.

But if you want to be a “gold medal” listener, there’s one more skill to master. Finding, and sticking to, your Ideal Listening Percentage (ILP). Your ILP is how much time you ideally want to spend listening vs. talking.

Many participants suggest for new client/initial discussion they would like to Listen 80%/Talk 20%. (Note: for a 1 hour meeting 80% is 48 minutes of listening!) Most participants also admit they are hard-pressed to stick to their ILP.

You’ll likely find your ILP varies based on the type of conversation you’re having. Exploratory is definitely a higher ratio. Responding to a specific request may warrant a lower ratio.

Whatever the right ILP is for you and your circumstances, consider it before, during, and after your conversation.

If you are having a conversation with a client – consider your ILP.

If you are having a conversation with a member of your team – consider your ILP.

If you are having a conversation with a family member or friend – consider you ILP.

If you are meeting a client with other members of your team, make sure you all agree on the ILP for the meeting.

Don’t Steal the Spotlight

The biggest challenge to keeping the spotlight on the client is our own self-orientation. It requires self-awareness and intentionality. During your next conversation, dedicate some quality “spotlight time”:

Be a “gold medal” listener.

Ten Skills to Lead with Trust

I recently shared my point of view on The (R)evolution of Trust-based Leadership. In that post I concluded that new leadership requires versatility and depends more on influence and collaboration than hierarchical authority and procedures. And that requires trust.

Leadership is complex. Successful leaders master a range of functions, from finance and operations to strategic planning and negotiation. But, as with so many things in business, technical competency is necessary but insufficient for real leadership.

Here are ten trust skills and attitudes leaders (and aspiring leaders) should consider putting into practice to round out their leadership skills.

Trust-based Leadership: Top Ten

  1. Don’t Fake It. The best way to be trusted—by far–is simply to be trustworthy. Be authentic, accountable, honest, and transparent. Good PR comes from publicizing good things, not from hiding or putting a spin on the not-so-good things. So don’t put your marketing, PR, or communications in charge of trust; you are in charge of trust, 24×7, by your own thoughts and actions.
  2. Your Ego is Not Your Amigo. Being driven can be OK. So too can being impatient, customer-obsessed, product-obsessed, design-obsessed, or people-obsessed. What cannot be OK is being obsessed with yourself. It is Not About You. If you always think it is “About You,” you might be a bad leader.
  3. Collaborate, Don’t Compete. No one is the enemy. Not your customer, not your supply chain, your employees, the union, not even your competitors. If you are always competing against others, you’re turning business – and life – into a zero-sum game. If you are focused on gaining advantage over others, you are making yourself the center of things (See #2 above). Let others obsess with competing. You be the one to go think about what you can do for [customers, employees, your supply chain, even your competitor]. She who adds the most value lives best. And longest, at least in terms of client loyalty.
  4. Leading is Emotional. Think of the great leaders in your life. Not who other people tell you are great leaders, but the ones you most want to follow, to emulate. Now ask yourself: are they passionate? My guess is they are, and that their moments of passion are the source of much of their influence. Leaders lead, which means others follow them, and emotional passion is a big driver. A lot of people work for people who don’t show their emotions. Very few people follow them.
  5. Act with Real Integrity. Integrity in the sense of being whole and undivided. You can’t be all things to all people. The more you try, the less whole you are, and the less integrity you appear to have. What you can do is to be the same person, at all times, to all people. That makes you whole, entire, integral—one who has integrity. A leader is committed to being, and unafraid to show, his whole self.
  6. Be Transparent. Transparency is a form of honesty. Hiding information – or sharing only partial information – is not being truthful. Withholding information (except where injurious or illegal) leads to doubt and mistrust. If I can see what’s going on, I know that I am not being misled. Motives become clear. Credibility is affirmed.
  7. Be in It for the Long Run. You can’t be transactional and be trusted. Transactions can only be trusted in packages. Time is the key. Never cut a deal with someone: cut the 27th deal in a series of 132 deals you intend to cut with them. That way you build a relationship—reliability, connection, mutual obligations, and the business vocabulary to express them. A leader is always thinking and acting in the long term.
  8. It’s Personal. The line from the movie The Godfather, “It’s not personal; it’s business,” was precisely wrong. It is both. Business is transacted between people. Companies aren’t trusted; people are (don’t confuse reputation with trust). Trust can be engineered; but at the end of the day, all trust is experienced as personal.
  9. Trust is Relationship. Robinson Crusoe didn’t need trust (before Friday, anyway). Trust is like ballroom dancing—you need two to tango. One trusts, the other is trustworthy. Either act by itself isn’t even the sound of one hand clapping: there is no trust without both parties in relationship. A leader knows how to play both roles; by trusting, he becomes trusted. By being trustworthy, he invites trust.
  10. There is no Trust without Risk. Ronald Reagan’s ‘trust but verify’ was good politics, but bad trust. Verification is the absence of trust. Trust mitigates risk, and – more importantly – taking risk can create greater opportunity for trust. Trust is risk freely taken, for the greater advantage of both parties. A leader knows that, sometimes, she’s just gotta take a leap.

For decades, it seems, we took for granted that good leaders shared some unidentified quality that made them good leaders. The truth of it is, the best leaders are self-aware, self-actualizing, and work hard to develop all the qualities that make a good leader.

Focus on trust and free yourself to be a real leader — passionate, decisive and courageous.

The (R)evolution of Trust-based Leadership

It’s been (gulp) more than 20 years since I got my MBA.

At the time, just before the turn of this century, Gordon Gekko’s fictional speech in the movie Wall Street that “Greed is Good” resonated. Icons like Jack Welch, Michael Eisner, Albert (“Chainsaw Al”) Dunlap, and Lou Gerstner were heralded for their ruthless commitment to corporate profitability. “Cash is king” was the watchword of the time, and “corporate value” usually meant the value of a company’s stock. Trust rarely came up as a topic.

Today, business schools commonly have courses, if not whole curricula, dedicated to the topic of leadership, with trust being a core element. An internet search for “trust in business” returned almost two billion results, and a search on the same phrase in Amazon Books returned over 8,000 results. To say trust-based leadership is a current topic is a gross understatement.

So what changed?

Trust Didn’t Change

The dynamics of trust are the same. Trust is personal: it occurs when one person takes the risk of trusting someone, and that person proves themselves trustworthy.

Our core models for trustworthiness and building trust – the Trust Equation, the ELFEC process, and the Trust Principles – have evolved, but the fundamentals, and the dynamics between trustor and trustee, are unchanged.

That’s hardly surprising. Trust is a fundamental human relationship that’s been around since well before the written word.

The World Changed

Back then, cellular phones were still a rarity, and the internet was only just catching on. Google was a brand-new company, Bluetooth and HDTV were just barely commercially available, and Mark Zuckerberg was in middle school. We got our information primarily from print newspapers and on-air newscasts.

Technology, and the easy access to information it provided, catapulted us into the 21st century. The internet changed the way we do almost everything. Smart phones are ubiquitous, and news of events is practically instantaneous. Climate change went from a political debate to a grim reality, and social issues are in the spotlight.

In particular, the business world is now:

  • Flatter – more horizontally linked, less vertically integrated
  • More inter-connected – global teams and globally-available resources
  • More technological – IOT, AI, machine learning, smart devices
  • More collaborative ­– ecosystems, innovation networks, supply chain integration
  • More transparent – social media, business intelligence, digital everything
  • More networked – a competitor in one deal is a partner in another
  • More values-based – social responsibility, sustainability, corporate culture

Leadership Changed

Old-school “leadership” was a one-size-fits-all approach to getting things done. Founded in command-and-control corporate models, it dictated that the role of the leader was to set corporate direction, which relegated everyone else to carrying out orders. This approach emphasized the mentality that leadership is done the same way, all the time, and by only a very few people.

Today, just as everyone is a salesperson and everyone is in customer service – so too everyone is a leader.

That’s not corporate double-speak; it has meaning. Dictating execution of strategy from the top down worked in an industrialized economy, but the flatter organizations of today distribute the responsibility of executing strategy throughout the organization.

In this new environment, leadership also is about more than just strategy execution. Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace Report finds that “employees who are supervised by highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged than those supervised by actively disengaged managers.”

The role of leading is no longer reserved exclusively for those at the top of the organization chart.

The leadership skills of today are persuasion, influence, collaboration, the ability to create alliances, to join forces, to create environments that encourage collaboration, the ability to play nicely together in the sandbox, to forge agreements, and to play long-term win-win rather than screw-your-customer to jack up the quarterly numbers.

Leadership Skills are Trust Skills

Those skills are trust skills. We don’t need fierce competitors; we need fierce collaborators. We don’t need to ‘win one for the Gipper;’ we need to win one for all of us. We don’t need vertical skills; we need horizontal skills.

Certain leadership skills are constant: the ability to inspire, to create and articulate visions and stories, for example. But others have been replaced. Being good at vicious infighting to gain the top job is – on balance, in most companies – a lot more dysfunctional these days than valuable. Making “tough decisions” isn’t the virtue it used to be; sometimes it just reflects a failure of imagination.

Today organizations are less about being led and more about cultures that foster leadership throughout. Such cultures are driven by what we call Virtues and Values.

New leadership requires versatility and depends more on influence and collaboration than hierarchical authority and procedures. And that requires trust.

Are you ready to be a trust-based leader?

Feeling Caught in the Middle? Lead with Trust

Countless studies and articles show that trust and high performing teams are interlinked. One such study by The Great Place to Work Institute shows that high-trust organizations beat the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three.

Even though it’s clear that fostering a high-trust team environment is the right strategy for improved morale, collaboration, innovation, AND financials, why do so many leaders struggle?

Leaders have many dynamics to navigate: direct reports, leadership teams, organizational metrics as well as their own personal goals. Matrix organizations can make things even more complicated. Add the stress of managing through the current pandemic, global events and world economic challenges, and it’s easy to see how leaders might feel caught in the middle.

Most leaders want to do right by their teams by creating a positive, flourishing environment. But when the stress is high, how we behave doesn’t always align with how we want to be seen as leaders.

The Trust Equation shows us how our actions and behaviours can increase (or decrease) the level of trust in our relationships. It also provides a simple framework to help leaders walk their talk and build trust with their teams.

  • Credibility is much more than the number of degrees hanging on a wall or awards sitting on a desk. As a leader, credibility becomes less about your technical capabilities and more about how you communicate. What message are you sending and to whom? Are you clear about your purpose and expectations?  Do you communicate intentionally and with full transparency so no one on the team feels “out of the loop”? Credibility is about communicating with honesty and integrity, even when the messages are hard, or you don’t have all the answers.
  • Reliability means being dependable and predictable; it’s how you show up to people day in and day out. If you’re friendly and at ease one day and a tyrant the next, your team will end up walking on eggshells, not really sure which version of you they might encounter. As a leader, your actions (and equally your lack of action) have impact.  Do your actions support and empower your team? How consistent is what you say with what you do? Your team members will take their cue from you—what messages do your actions send?
  • Intimacy is all about safety. It is created through empathy, discretion, and personal risk-taking. It must be built individually with team members and encourages among the team as a whole. How vulnerable and open are you with your team? Do you encourage others to share their thoughts and emotions, and are you open to hearing what they might say? How do you encourage discussion and healthy conflict? What happens when someone on the team makes a mistake? Your reactions as a leader will set the tone for the entire team.
  • Self-Orientation shows your team where your focus is and what motivates you. How are you showing your commitment and attention to your team and your joint goals, versus your own personal agenda?  Spotting a leader who only manages up is easy.  Less obvious is a leader who is doubtful, stressed or unsure – all triggers of high self-orientation.  When our “S” is high, we know we need to focus on the long term and think strategically, but we may find ourselves diving deep, nit-picking and second guessing team members.  Creating a high-trust environment requires trusting the team to do their work, even if they do the work differently than you. Build collaboration and trust by focusing on the big picture, seeking to understand others and elevating the contributions of the team.

Building a team with trust takes mindful practice, especially when you feel caught in the middle of competing pressures and priorities. The best leaders dedicate themselves to creating a culture where their people feel heard, respected, safe and appreciated. Frame your leadership around the Trust Equation and watch your culture flourish, even in the most stressful times.

For more on this topic, check out our eBook How To Create a Culture of Trust and watch my free webinar Caught in the Middle – Leading with Trust in Times of Stress.

When Leaders Act Like Managers

We’re all panicked. Agitated. There’s world-wide upheaval. No one knows what the future holds. For many of us, our so-called stress behaviours can start to become the norm.  If we’re honest, we’ve all probably found ourselves acting more like a manager than a leader at some point.

As our stress rises, it becomes harder to make sure what we say aligns with what we actually do. Sometimes the shift might be subtle—a sudden increase in the amount of data and frequency of reporting perhaps. Or it can be flagrant—we tell our teams to be sure to keep a healthy work/life balance…but then ask them to work the weekend so we can meet our deadline.  Over time, the inconsistency between words and actions, the second guessing and the micro-management can start to erode their trust in us as leaders.

If this sounds like a familiar problem, consider empathy as your antidote.

One-on-One Empathy

Imagine a conversation where a leader shows empathy for how an employee might be feeling: “At the risk of overstepping my boundaries, it occurred to me that I have no idea what your world is like right now. And I’m sure all these new processes to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to are not easy on you. How do you feel about it, and are you getting what you need from me to help support you?”

An honest conversation goes a long way. The leader is taking a small risk by having a conversation that is out of the norm, which allows the employee to take a small risk in return by answering with honesty (if they choose to do so). Regardless of the employee’s answer, you’ve created a safe place for open feedback and a foundation of trust is being built.

Empathy in a Team Setting

Now let’s shift our perspective to the team. Consider the scenario where a team member has to share some challenging news: “You remember that assumption we made about (insert your favorite COVID assumption here) …we were wrong and now we’ve got a 6-week delay.” Responding in the moment with second-guessing, laying blame and micro-managing might help you feel better, but as a leader, it can actually diminish the sense of safety, discretion and trust within the team.

Consider a more empathetic and supportive approach.  Turn the conversation around: “I know that’s a hard one for the team, but we made the best decision we could at the time.  What do you want to do now and what support do you need from me?”  Being supportive and non-judgmental allows the team to communicate openly with full honesty and transparency.


Leading a team can be challenging, especially now.  As a leader, your actions speak louder than words and it’s important to be mindful of the messages your actions are sending.  If you think about your recent interactions with your team, as a group and one-on-one, did your actions send the message you wanted?  What might you do differently to make sure your team is hearing the message you’re trying to send?

Read more from Lisa McArthur on Trust & Leadership and/or join us on April 13 for our free webinar, Caught in the Middle – Leading with Trust in Times of Stress.

Selling Trust into the Sales Process (Episode 40) Trust Matters,The Podcast

Welcome to the newest episode of Trust Matters, The Podcast. Listeners submit their personal questions about professional relationships, trust, and business situations to our in-house expert Charles H. Green, CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates, and co-author of The Trusted Advisor.

Jennifer from a Telecommunications company writes in and asks, “I know you’ve written about Trust-based Selling. My question is not to ask you to explain Trust-based Selling, but instead how to SELL the Trust-based Selling approach into my sales training team?  What’s the hook? The business case? How can I get them to consider it seriously?”

Do you want to send your questions to Charlie & Trust Matters, The Podcast?

We’ll answer almost ANY question about confusing, complicated or awkward business situations with clients, management, and colleagues. Email us: [email protected]