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Leaders Must Give Trust if They Want to Get Trust

The first step in building trust on a team is for a leader to actually trust their team.

Teams live or die based on trust. I am often asked what is the first thing a leader can do to build trust on their teams. My answer is always the same – Be Trusting! Trust starts with the leader. Nobody is going to trust somebody who doesn’t trust them. It’s a simple fact of life. We do not make ourselves vulnerable and offer trust to another person unless we can reasonably assume they are doing the same thing.

In working with law enforcement agencies across the country, I run into a lot of well-meaning leaders who are truly trying to make a difference in their agencies and communities. About a year ago, I was working with a mid-sized agency’s command staff, civilian supervisors, and shift supervisors. A Captain over the patrol division rightly proclaimed that trust was the most important factor to a team’s success. But an interesting thing happened at the next break. Two of his Lieutenants approached me and let me know that the same Captain was a micromanager. In fact, nobody in the Patrol Division felt like their leader trusted them.

This is not an unusual scenario on teams. The leader says “I trust you!” But that same leader’s behaviors prove otherwise. That leader is not intentionally being a hypocrite. They know and believe in what they say. Unfortunately, when we actually have to put trust into action, it can be inconvenient. It is often inconvenient to take the time to build trust with people. A leader can actually prove he/she trusts someone by:

  • Allowing someone else to run a meeting.

  • Asking others how they think something should be done and then doing it that way.

  • Allowing subordinate leaders to make decisions without our interference.

In all three of these situations we exercise both Courage and Selflessness. When we trust someone, we are giving up control and making ourselves vulnerable. There is a perceived or an actual risk that something may go wrong if we are not involved. But in each case, we are exercising Selflessness because we accept that their failure is a possibility.

When someone on our team fails, that could create more work and more headaches for us. But that failure also gives them an opportunity to learn and grow. We can’t tell people we trust them and then never give them the room to make mistakes or do things in a different way than we would have done them.

To build trust we must first be trusting. To be trusting – we must exercise both Courage and Selflessness. Ninety-nine percent of people want to be trusted. A leader can talk about trust all they want. But, when a leader’s actions do not support their words the team won’t trust the leader until the leader proves they trust the team. The trust we build with others is not a result of how much we say we say we trust them, but how much our behaviors prove that we trust them.

Dig Deep Questions:

  • What can you do to demonstrate trust with this week?

  • What could someone learn if you let them fail?


It is important to us for you to have an opportunity to exercise Selflessness, not only individually, but together as a team. This is why we have created practice cards with scenarios. We invite you to discuss as a team what it means to exercise Selflessness via our Coaching Cards.

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