Dave Odom: Cultivating trust is a crucial task for leaders

A piece of wood with the word "TRUST" burned into it

Bigstock/Natasa Adzic

To cultivate trust, leaders must contribute to a sense of safety, commit themselves to listening, empower others to act, learn from their mistakes, and promise only what they can deliver, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

One of the pleasant surprises about being a church consultant in the late 20th century was that, for many churches, the low trust among congregants exhibited before hiring the consultant transformed into remarkably high trust in the consultant as they shared stories of pain and loss. All the participants, on every side, assumed that the consultant would see the situation their way. This perspective made getting people to talk very easy.

Once people had a chance to tell their stories to a stranger, they began to discover what was really important to them. The consultant’s work, then, was figuring out how to get people to listen to each other, across the sides into which they were divided. Congregants could remember a time when they felt listened to; the consultant’s work was to recover that kind of relationship.

Today, many people in the United States don’t remember a time when they were heard. Some feel that the American economy and society have left them far behind. Others have been silenced for generations, their stories missing from history books and media coverage. As a result, many increasingly believe that they can be understood only by people like themselves. People not like themselves are dangerous. For protection, some people hide, while others lash out.

In this moment, engendering trust -- in one’s leadership and within one’s community -- is among the leader’s most important and difficult acts. Recently, a college dean told me that academic leadership is now all about trust. She was a tenured professor at a prestigious university before being recruited to lead 500 faculty members in the elite undergraduate school of a rival institution. In her brief tenure, she has realized that her standing as a scholar and the prestige of the school have contributed little to her being effective.

Trust is built on a foundation of credibility and transparency. But trust also requires a sense of safety. Today’s leaders can contribute to colleagues’ feeling safe, but factors outside their influence can create a feeling of danger. The impact of systemic oppression that has kept people at the margins of organizations, communities and society is now being named more clearly for those in power. Marginalized people have always known they are not safe; more privileged people now feel unsafe as well.

For the last 25 years, I have been a department director in two different large organizations. In each case, the department was an island within a larger organization, with its own particular mission, specific audience and dedicated funding. I have seen part of my job as protecting my colleagues from the “politics” of the larger organization and the funders. I have treated the organization and funders like sponsors. We have fulfilled their requirements while focusing our creative energy on understanding and responding to our specific audience’s needs.

It is no longer possible for a single leader to provide such protection. Each person must have the opportunity to name his or her vulnerabilities in multiple places. All employees or participants must contribute to the sense of safety over time.

My first experience with this sort of responsibility came as a freshly minted consultant. After a long meeting, a lay leader pulled me aside and said, “If you were assisting my company, I would fire you. We trust you more than we trust ourselves. Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. We need you to be dependable.”

The lay leader had hired many consultants over the years. He could see that I was focused on designing a good process to help the congregation after being betrayed by its pastor. But he wanted me to see that while process might be important to me, the church community needed to place their confidence in me and experience my confidence in them. They did not trust themselves to have difficult conversations alone and needed me to bridge this gap of trust.

Every leader faces a similar situation today. Any action is subject to scrutiny. Any situation can become one primarily about trust. We must pay attention to both the presenting challenge and its emotional consequences.

How can leaders do this?

  • Put safety-building first. Analyze every situation through the lens of how its resolution could increase or decrease safety.
  • Listen, listen, listen. What are colleagues and constituents saying? What feelings are underneath the words? What is the history behind the concern? Listen for systemic injustice that often underlies a concern.
  • Empower action. Given the multiple and deep causes of the challenges people are facing, the leader is not the only person who can or should act. Consider how you might empower others to address the situation.
  • Name mistakes and lessons learned. Learn from others about the impact of the mistake. Apologize.
  • Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. Name your intentions and the limits. Keep pushing on the limits.

Cultivating trust requires consistent work over time. Trust often ebbs and flows and is influenced by personal, organizational and societal events. Recognizing the significance of cultivating trust is the first step. Helping colleagues see its importance is equally critical. The dedication to cultivating trust is far more significant than commitment to any particular process or technique.