Trust. How to Inspire Your Most Powerful Competitive Edge

Years ago, Stephen Covey observed that without trust, people don’t truly collaborate; they merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. He points out that trust is what transforms a group of people into a team. In my experience, leaders who invest heavily in creating trust, guard against diminishing its value, and spend it generously, excel at transforming relationships, teams, and organizations.

Today, as global networks of Millennial and Gen Z teams replace layers of Baby Boomer management in flatter, hybrid organizations, trust is more vital than ever to organizational success. Yet, harnessing trust to make a significant impact remains an enigma for most corporate leaders.

The Problem

The need for leaders who are adept at managing the people dynamics of change is greater than ever. Yet too many managers default to heavy processes because they don’t understand how to measure and harness trust as the critical driver of behavior change and wellbeing across teams and an organization.

The Solution

There are three habits that extraordinary leaders develop to lay a foundation of trust and create a cohesive team of teams. Operationalizing trust – measuring it, making it actionable, and advancing it as a leadership competency – is the key.

The Payoff

Unleashing the power of trust turns it into a scalable and sustainable competitive advantage. It is the key to creating high-performing teams that deliver superior business results and experience greater well-being.

Trouble with Trust

Jay was excited about his appointment as the change management lead for his division. Jo, the head of the Program Management Office, was also excited about the new initiative, and she was a little nervous about having several new change managers on her team. From experience, Jo knew that first-time change managers would need constant feedback and coaching – especially around the people challenges of change.

Trust is the most powerful and least understood leadership ‘soft’ skill in today’s business world.

After the program kickoff, Jo met weekly with the division change management leads to get regular feedback on progress, issues, and how their teams were coping with the stress of balancing workloads and the changes. Jay always assured Jo that he had a great relationship with each team leader and that their teams were doing well. But over the next few months, Jo began to see signs that all might not be well on Jay’s teams as several key performance indicators began slipping close to the ‘danger zone’ when missed dates started to impact the overall program schedule. She became concerned that Jay’s assessment of the team leaders was overconfident and decided to set up skip-level meetings with all the team leaders.

During the skip-level meetings, several team leaders confidentially told Jo that they were unsure if they could trust Jay because they didn’t believe he was fully transparent in his progress updates. They questioned if he was putting his career aspirations ahead of the project’s success by downplaying issues and then pushing them to put in extra hours to close the gaps – with little concern for the impact on their families and other commitments.

Jay could feel the blood draining from his face and had that sinking, “kicked in the gut” sensation as Jo gave him the feedback from her meetings with the team leaders. Jay didn’t hear much after, “they’re not sure that they can trust you,” as his focus shifted to mounting his defense. Jo listened carefully as Jay explained his point of view on working with the team leaders and gave his assurances that there were no serious issues. From her expression, Jay could tell that Jo wasn’t convinced. He came away from the meeting feeling stressed and dejected and couldn’t help feeling betrayed by the team leaders and unfairly judged by Jo. With his confidence shaken, Jay found himself constantly wondering who said that they didn’t trust him. He found himself trapped in a frustrating cycle of micromanaging, chastising himself for it, then justifying it, telling himself that with so much at stake, if people didn’t trust him, he had no choice but to stay in all the details.

More Than a Character Trait

From childhood, most people learn that trust is an essential quality and virtue. Each of us has a deeply embedded sense of what trust – or a violation of trust – feels like, and we place it at the top of what’s important to us in our relationships. People put a high value on being seen as trustworthy and assume that because they see themselves as trustworthy, so does everyone else. But few know the extent to which people trust them, and even fewer try to find out.

But there is more to trust than just being an admirable character trait. It is also a biological catalyst that triggers the release of potent neurochemicals like oxytocin that fire up the brain’s reward system. Oxytocin acts as a volume dial, turning up and amplifying the positive feelings and experiences associated with greater trust. Trust is in the eye of the beholder and is built from the inside out. The behavioral dynamic that allows us to harness the power of trust as a catalyst is people’s expectation of other people, a team, or an organization vs. their experience with that relationship.

The expectation vs. experience dynamic is powerful because it is foundational to trust at all levels and it can be measured. When expectations are high, and our experience consistently meets those expectations, oxytocin and other reward neurochemicals make us feel good and want to repeat the experience. However, when there are persistent gaps – when experiences fall short of expectations again and again – relationships deteriorate, and trust is diminished or destroyed. Reward neurochemicals are blocked and replaced with cortisol, norepinephrine, and others, causing us to feel stress and disengaged.

In retrospect, Jay did have a choice. He didn’t have to stay mired in micromanaging. By seeing and treating trust as both a character trait and catalyst and being intentional about managing his team leaders’ expectation-experience dynamic, he could have caught and closed the trust gaps early. Instead of creating doubt, division, and resistance, Jay would have kept people fully engaged in accomplishing the program goals. They would have been more productive and experienced greater well-being.

“Sounds good!” you say… but how?

Unleashing the Power of Trust isn’t Rocket Science

Trust has been a topic of leadership and team research for over 60 years. Scientists have consistently found that trust plays a vital role in determining an organization’s ability to affect change and deliver exceptional results. During my research and work with elite teams, I uncovered three habits that extraordinary team leaders develop to lay a foundation of trust and create a cohesive team:

  • Aligning purpose and values and using them to assess behavior and guide change.
  • Inspiring intrinsic motivation – connecting purpose to skills and autonomy.
  • Operationalizing trust – making it measurable and actionable – and using those insights to coach and nudge team behavior.

Trust is the key to creating high-performing teams that deliver superior business results and experience greater well-being.

Unleashing the power of trust isn’t rocket science, but it is behavioral science. Learning to operationalize trust and harness it as a catalyst is perhaps the most powerful and least understood leadership ‘soft’ skill in today’s business world. It is the key to creating high-performing teams that deliver superior business results and experience greater well-being. Yet, too few organizations treat trust as a leadership competency that can be developed and measured.

The Future of Trust

Constant, rapid change is the hallmark of today’s workplace, and the need for speed and a highly adaptable workforce is only going to grow. An investment in unleashing the power of trust will deliver an exceptional return. Trust is transformational because it enables diverse groups of people to come together as a team, realize their full potential, and make a lasting impact. When leaders throughout your organization can say, “Trust is high on and across my teams and this is the data that shows it,” you will have created a sustainable competitive advantage vital to the future of your people and organization.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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