How to Maintain the Trust of Those You Lead

October 9, 2019

by Shaun Hansen, Director, MBA Program, associate professor of business administration

A large percentage of leaders end up completely derailing.  Why?  The research indicates that it frequently comes down to these leaders’ relationships with those they lead; for one reason or another, they are unable to maintain the trust of their subordinates (Dirks & Ferrin, 2002; Hansen et al, 2013; Hansen et al, 2016).  Too often, leaders (usually subconsciously) assume that because they have succeeded in being appointed “the leader,” they are somehow perpetually worthy of this title.  Nothing could be further from reality.  Empirical research on leadership sends a very clear message:  If we want to be great leaders, we must earn the trust of those we lead on an ongoing basis. 


Trust is one of the great keys to successful human relationships.  In the research, trust is defined as the willingness to make oneself vulnerable to another (Mayer et al, 1995).  Over the last several decades, a large number of empirical studies have together determined that three primary character traits govern peoples’ perceptions of others’ trustworthiness; these are:  benevolence, integrity, and ability (Mayer et al, 1995; Colquitt et al, 2007).  [Benevolence refers to a person’s compassion and goodwill towards others.  Integrity refers to a person’s reliability and/or habit of following through.  Ability refers to a person’s various capabilities; for example, intelligence, knowledge, experience, training received, etc.]  The psychology of trust is really quite simple:  People continually evaluate their leaders based upon these three key traits and they reserve their best performance for leaders they trust.  The research is clear; successful leaders tend to be 1) humble people of high capability, who 2) truly care about their people, and who 3) seek to abide by the highest ethical standards.


  • First, be humble and continually seek to increase your skills and capabilities.  All leadership roles come with requirements for specific capabilities.  It’s unwise to seek roles we aren’t qualified for.  When we do obtain a role that we feel qualified for, beware.  We must continually take advice from those we lead, and we must be willing to strengthen our capabilities (starting with our most obvious weaknesses).  The reality is, there is someone out there, and possibly a whole group of people out there, who believes (possibly accurately) that someone else should hold the leadership position we hold.  While we need not admit to shortcomings that do not actually exist, we must view ourselves as “works in progress.”  When we are wrong, we must quickly admit it; we cannot double-down on a bad decision just to preserve our egos.  As leaders, we must be humbly motivated by a sincere desire for constant improvement.
  • Second, truly care about your people and never forget your dependence on them.  In a way, benevolence drives everything we do as human beings.  If we ask ourselves why we do what we do every day, it often boils down to the fact that we care for someone or some group of people.  Why do mothers and fathers seek to earn money?  To care for their families.  Why does any sustainable corporation or organization exist?  To create value for or to otherwise benefit specific groups of people.  The human race is more socially sensitive than it realizes.  “Red flags” naturally go up in our minds when we perceive that a leader (who arguably should be our servant) is doing something only for her or himself, especially if it could be to our detriment or to the detriment of the office the leader holds.  As leaders, we can avoid many problems if we can maintain a grateful attitude toward our subordinates and make their welfare our #1 priority. 
  • Finally, always abide by the highest ethical standards.  The overwhelming majority of us think we are more ethical than the average person is; this is a problem!  The unpleasant truth is that we all need to humble ourselves regarding ethics.  We can all do better, and the stakes for leaders are especially high:  Not only do subordinates often hold their leaders to a higher standard than they do themselves, research suggests that it can be very difficult for leaders to earn back subordinates’ trust following a perceived ethical breach.  Whereas people sometimes assume a behavior is unethical simply because they do not possess all the facts, effective leaders must be constantly concerned, not just about their actual behavior, but also about appearances.  When it comes to trust, perception is reality.  The solution for leaders therefore requires effort.  As leaders, we must continually seek to abide by the highest ethical standards and watch out for appearances.

If we want to succeed as leaders, we must pay continual attention to how our subordinates view us.  We may strongly believe that we are trustworthy leaders, but what do our subordinates think?  The above discussion provides us with a few research-backed suggestions.  Honest, continuing communication is the requirement; improvement is incessantly the opportunity. 


Cited sources available upon request.


Shaun Hansen joined the faculty of Weber State University in 2012. He currently serves as the Director of Weber State’s MBA program, and has served previously as the Chair of the Business Administration and Marketing Department and the Faculty Senate Environmental Issues Committee. In in addition to B.A. and M.B.A. degrees, Hansen holds a Ph.D. in management from the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.  Hansen is an active researcher and currently serves as an editorial board member for the Journal of Business Ethics, the Journal of Trust Research, and the Business Education Innovation Journal.  He teaches a variety of management and ethics courses in the Goddard School’s MBA and undergraduate programs, and his research interests include ethical leadership, corporate social/environmental responsibility, executive training techniques, and trust-based pedagogy/strategy.