A culture of trust based on vulnerability – Part III

By Zsolt Szalai


3. What do I have to do to be trusted?

An important feature of sincere trust is that it cannot be enforced or ordered. Many leaders approach the issue by requiring their employees to have complete trust without doing anything about it themselves. A proof for trusted leadership is when the organization or team is facing an important test or is subjected to a strong external negative effect. In the response of the employees, we see their trust. Do they stand up for the leader or will they passively observe the events, or even run away?

Robert F. Hurley’s The Decision to Trust, in a Harvard Business Review journal[1], raises this question: “What does a leader need to do to be trusted?” His research shows a surprising result: the personality of the leader (the trustee) is important but not always the most important thing for trust. The personality of the decision maker (the truster, the person giving trust) and situational factors also play an important role.


For example: Some people are natural risk takers; others are innately cautious. How tolerant people are of risk has a big impact on their willingness to trust—regardless of who the trustee is. Risk seekers tend to have faith that things will work out well. Risk avoiders, however, often need to feel in control before they place their trust in someone.  

Another factor is the ability to adjust. Well-adjusted people are comfortable with themselves and see the world as a generally benign place. Their high levels of confidence often make them quick to trust. People who are poorly adjusted, by contrast, tend to see many threats in the world, and so they carry more anxiety into every situation. These people take longer to get to a position of comfort and trust, regardless of the trustee.
Relative power is another important factor in the decision to trust. If the truster is in a position of authority, he is more likely to trust, because he can sanction a person who violates his trust. But if the truster has little authority, and thus no recourse, he is more vulnerable and so will be less comfortable trusting.


Three of the seven situational factors mentioned in the article can be influenced by the leader who asks for confidence.
The first of these is whether the manager has the right skills to fill the job. It is not enough to have professional knowledge and managerial experience; this must be constantly demonstrated.
The second area is paddled into a very delicate field: has the trusting leader proved that he is trustworthy and honest? From this point of view, the integrity of the leader, the unity of his words and actions is vital. Unfortunately, it often happens that as leaders we like to say loud slogans, and then our actions immediately contradict this. Perhaps we should be careful with statements and be courageous and consistent with our actions.
The third area is the quality of communication between the truster and the trustee. This area is most affected by the current culture that we do not try to do many things in person but use the online space as an intermediary. Unfortunately, in complicated and sensitive issues, what is communicated in writing tends to make the situation worse and fatten even simple questions into complex problems. Although personal conversation may seem more time-consuming at first, my experience tells me that it always results in the quickest solution and clarification.

In his letter, the apostle James speaks at length about the power of language and the power of the spoken word. What is said can destroy, break a relationship and cannot be recalled. This is especially true in the world of social media, where our words remain written and stored. As a leader, it is especially important what and how we say or write in our work or ministry, or what and how we like in the digital social media. Therefore, if we want to earn trust from our employees and our environment, we should carefully consider what was written in James’s letter and pay special attention to verse 12 of Chapter 5.

“Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Otherwise you will be condemned.”

[1] https://hbr.org/2006/09/the-decision-to-trust

Reflection/Discussion Questions

  1. What can a leader do to increase the level of trust of an employee who is a low risk-taker and who finds it difficult to cope with changes?
  2. What can a leader do to reflect integrity in his/her behaviour in order to increase the level of trust for his/her person?
  3. How can you say a simple “Yes” or “No” in a real life, not black and white situation, to keep or even increase the level of trust in your organisation?

Zsolt Szalai, following his studies on Hungarian and English universities and completion of a doctorate in finance, has spent the last three decades in mid- and upper-management roles in banking, private equity, non-profit organisations and Christian churches. Currently he is self-employed as a business consultant. Besides that, he is Head of the Board of Elders of Szentendre Reformed Church, Chairman of Christian Businessmen Association, and Chairman of Compass Europe. During his career, Zsolt gained a wide range of experience in corporate finance, capital markets, project finance, innovation management, and business development areas. Zsolt is also adjunct professor at different universities. He is an active speaker and lecturer at conferences, leadership courses, and workshops. 

Who are you?

What are you looking for?

About us