The Most Important Thing You Can Do to Build Trust with Your Team

Leaders spend a lot of time worrying about what to say. We sweat over a presentation. Carefully write (and rewrite) “informal” remarks. Print out a draft email so we can re-read it one more time before hitting the send button.

It’s all important, of course, but when it comes to building trust in your organization, what you say is not nearly as important as how well you listen, according to Denny F. Strigel, former CEO and President of Verizon Wireless and author of Managers, Can You Hear Me Now?

“Trust is a vital management ingredient, the foundation of success not only for the manager, but for the enterprise as a whole,” writes Strigel. “All other pieces of a manager’s job are built upon trust.”

Strigel defines trust as creating a workplace “in which employees can rely on their managers to create, build and maintain a sense of confidence in their effectiveness.”

The most important thing leaders and managers can do to build trust, says Strigel, is create an open work environment “in which employees can speak their minds without fear of reprisal. They not only are free to express their ‘real’ thoughts but are encouraged to do so. They know their thoughts will be heard.”

How do you create a climate of open, honest and direct communication? Four ways: 

1. Get out of the office. “The worst place to be as a manager is behind your desk,” writes Strigel.  When you get out of your office and visit employees at all levels, you can instantly demonstrate that you’re are open to new ideas, want to learn about issues, are eager to find solutions to problems and are engaged and interested in the people within your organization.”

2. Establish an open door policy. Encourage employees to come speak with you whenever they have something to say. “At first, employees may not believe you are serious. They will test you. If they find your office door closed or if they come into your office and you don’t take the time to truly listen to them, word will spread quickly that you weren’t serious.”

But if you persevere, your team members will increasingly approach you with questions and issues. And that will give you an opportunity to engage with employees in a variety of ways.

3. Get really good at listening. As my fellow Inc. columnist Marcel Schwanteswrites, “Effective communication isn’t just about talking; it is also the ability to listen and understand what’s happening on the other side of the fence. You listen for meaning and understanding with the other person’s needs in mind.”

By doing so, you make your team members “feel felt,” writes Mark Goulston in his book Just Listen

“When you succeed, you can change the dynamics of a relationship in a heartbeat,” according to Goulston. “At that instant, instead of trying to get the better of each other, you ‘get’ each other and that breakthrough can lead to cooperation, collaboration and effective communication.”

The secret to this dynamic lies in mirror neurons, Goulston explains. “When you mirror what another person feels, the person is wired to mirror you in return. Say ‘I understand what you’re feeling,” and the other person will feel grateful and spontaneously express that gratitude with a desire to understand you in return. It’s an irresistible biological urge, and one that pulls that person toward you.”

And, writes Schwantes, there’s a big payoff: “The more receptive you are to helping your team, the more you make it a safe place for employees to be open enough to give you great input, great ideas and great contributions.”

4. Encourage “the obligation of constructive dissent.” This is a bit of a complicated concept, says Strigel, but it’s really important. The idea is that employees not only have the right to disagree or voice differing opinions but they have the obligation to do so. And when team members do dissent, they must express their opinions constructively–in a helpful rather than a hurtful manner.

The payoff? “When there is openness in an organization, people can share their real thoughts, and they can say things without fear of reprisal,” writes Strigel. “Trust grows and so does creativity.”