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How Leaders Build Trust

Posted on May 29, 2019
portrait of colleagues in meeting

Organizational leaders tend to believe that people will trust them more if they are always certain and clear with ready solutions for difficult problems. In reality, the opposite is true. When the courage to risk failure and the transparency of owning mistakes is balanced with a clear commitment to learning, trust grows quickly.

When there is trust, people are able to embrace the failure that is an essential aspect of any creative endeavor. When leaders are human, vulnerable and real people feel connected personally and trust blossoms.

Here are three tools that leaders can use to build trust.


Without a willingness to be transparent and human, leadership becomes transactional rather than relational. All of the focus is on outcomes and results.

It’s obviously critical to produce results. However, when actions are held in a context of partnership and relationship, everyone can work together rather than the burden needing to rest only on the person in charge.

People know when the truth is being spoken. They do not have to be told. When those in charge tell the truth and speak openly, trust naturally occurs.

If there is failure, then it is important to say cleanly, “I made a mistake, and here’s how I’m going to take responsibility for it.” This kind of honesty is vital to creating an atmosphere of safety, openness and freedom to fail and learn.


Listening deeply to another person has become rare. We are so focused on results and outcomes that we become preoccupied with the task rather than with the person.

In deep listening, it is important to listen beyond the words into the heart of the other person and hear the deeper truth being offered.

This can be more challenging than it sounds. Our mind chatter can be loud and demanding, nattering away about all kinds of problems, issues and concerns.  It takes discipline to shift our attention beyond our internal dialogue and focus it firmly on another person.

It’s helpful to imagine our listening as a spotlight. When we are listening to our own internal dialog, that’s what gets illuminated. When we discipline ourselves to point the spotlight of our listening toward another person, the impact can be tremendous.  When people experience deep listening, their natural resourcefulness and creativity comes to the fore.

Courageous Conversation

When we speak of conversation, we are not talking about meaningless platitudes or superficial chitchat. A real conversation has substance and depth.

The word conversation derives from the Latin for “to turn about with.” What if every conversation was an opportunity to turn with someone toward something?

When people can weigh in, they can buy in. Even if the direction that is ultimately taken is different than what they would have wanted, people will be able to engage and trust if they have been able to contribute through conversation and disagreement.

Because they are authentic and courageous, there is a kind of brilliance and luminosity to these larger conversations.

It can be difficult to make time for courageous conversations in our busy world, filled with terse emails and 140-character tweets. There’s nothing wrong with these forums—they can be useful for communicating quick ideas or succinct information. Yet it’s important that we also continue to foster our ability to sink into meaningful conversation.

A really good conversation takes time and commitment. People need to remain curious and continue to explore the outermost edges of the subject. Any meaningful conversation also requires courage because it calls us to question our most cherished beliefs and to be willing to explore the unknown.

By looking for what is not being explored or spoken, Co-Active leaders will find the raw materials for courageous conversations that move a group beyond being defined by past successes and into a new and fresh territory.

Written By

Karen Kimsey-House

Karen Kimsey-House, MFA, CPCC, is the Co-founder and CEO of The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), the oldest and largest in-person coach training school in the world, and the co-author of the best-selling Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. Karen was one of four pioneers of the coaching profession, and in honor of its 20th birthday this year, she is sharing her insights about human transformation in a ten-part HuffPost series,"Disrupt Your Life in a Good Way".