The Servant-Leader in Action – Trust

In my previous posts I’ve been looking at what the data reveal about engaged followers in high-performing teams. Nurturing these conditions for engagement is what gives the servant-leader her lead. When people strongly agree with the following eight statements, they freely and eagerly give extra effort to their work. They consistently bring heads, hearts, and hands to the job. And the result is high-performance by every measure, from worker safety and employee retention to customer satisfaction and profitability. Here they are again:

(1)   I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.

(2)   At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.

(3)   In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.

(4)   I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.

(5)   My teammates have my back.

(6)   I know I will be recognized for excellent work.

(7)   I have great confidence in my company’s future.

(8)   In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

We’ve looked at mission and expectations, values and strengths. We turn now to trust – knowing that our teammates have our back.

We all need to know we are working with people we can count on to support us to do our best work. We long for teams in which the mission is lifted up, expectations are clear, we share values that define personal and professional excellence, and we get to use our distinctive strengths on the job every day.

Such teams run on trust. Gallup’s latest research on trust within teams, starting with trust in the leader, is powerfully linked to engagement. When trust is lacking, the chances that team members are engaged falls to 1 in 12. But when there’s trust, the chances of engagement jump to 1 in 2.

Three Dimensions of Trust

Dennis and Michelle Reina identify three dimensions of trust in their wonderful book, Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization:

First – trust of character. As we’ve seen earlier, shared values are one of the key drivers of engagement and performance. Teammates have our backs when their word is their bond, they keep promises, and they show up with integrity. We do our best work when we team with people of impeccable character, starting with the leader. Servant-leaders build high-trust teams by providing the moral compass of the organization. They know where True North is, and they instill the values that guide people to be reliable, honest, and true.

Second – trust of communication. Teammates have our backs when they share information, give and take feedback, and don’t feed the rumor mill. Self-serving leaders use their platform to manipulate their listeners. Such conversations reinforce a parent-child relationship. Ironically, such leaders say, “Trust me to take care of you; trust me to make the decisions; trust me to have the answers.” Servant-leaders communicate authentically and humbly. They are thinking partners rather than expert tellers and treat their listeners as fully capable adults who can handle the truth.

Third – trust of capability. Teammates have our backs when we can trust that they have the skills, knowledge, and expertise to perform with excellence. We know they are capable and competent to do their part. When we harness our collective capability to achieve great things, our trust of each other grows by leaps and bounds. Servant leadership gets a bad rap for being more concerned with how people feel than how they perform. Nothing could be further from the truth. Servant-leaders balance relationships and results. They understand that under-performance erodes trust just as much as poor interpersonal dynamics, and so they do all in their power to ensure that their teams have everything they need to get the job done well.

When Trust Breaks Down

We don’t mean to, but we all let people down and betray the trust they place in us. It’s inevitable that we will sometimes flag in our enthusiasm for the mission, fall short of expectations, and fail to uphold the values that hold the team together. Even our strengths can become a problem if we overplay them, failing to see that our natural ways of excelling are not landing well with our teammates.

When the leader breaks trust intentionally, it’s disastrous. But even the best servant-leader falls short in character, capability, and communication. That’s when it becomes critical that we draw on the reserves of trust that we’ve established with each other to forgive, learn, improve, and grow.

Broken trust can be a tremendous opportunity for building resilient teams that come out of the rough patches even stronger than before, provided the team and its leader are equipped with tools for rebuilding trust. Here are seven steps for healing from the Reinas:

Observe and acknowledge what has happened. We kid ourselves if we think people won’t notice broken trust. The servant-leader must always keep a keen lookout for trust issues, bring them to light, and get the conversation going so that the situation doesn’t fester unaddressed.

Allow feelings to surface. When we disappoint each other, it’s an emotional blow as well as a performance hit. It does no good to suppress feelings and play the stoic. The emotions will continue to churn beneath the surface and erupt when least expected. The servant-leader shows empathy combined with the emotional maturity needed to deal with natural feelings of betrayal.

Give and get support. When we have each other’s back, we work quickly to let each other know that our bonds of trust are strong enough to meet the challenge of disappointments and let downs. It takes humility and courage to admit that we need help to pick up the pieces. The servant-leader models these attributes. She provides and asks for concrete, specific support to strengthen the team.

Reframe the experience. In a healthy team, the vast majority of breaches of trust are unintended. Certainly, we know that our lapses are mistakes and not deliberate acts of betrayal! But it’s so easy to assume negative intent when others fail us. That’s when the servant-leader steps in to put facts and feelings into perspective. It’s especially important to see the situation in terms of resilience and new opportunities to rebuild trust rather than irreparable damage.

Take Responsibility. The servant-leader looks first to her contribution, either in what she’s done or what she’s failed to do, to the breakdown in trust. She owns her part in stewarding the trust dynamics across the team. When team members see the leader go first, they are much more willing to own their part and take steps to make amends.

Forgive yourself and others. Easier said than done. And it starts with the leader. Since the servant-leader models taking responsibility, and she also must model forgiveness. Surprisingly, that means accepting the forgiveness of others. Exchanging grace isn’t complete unless we receive grace offered to us and forgive ourselves. At the same time, we forgive others with humility and kindness.

Let go and move on. When we know that there’s forgiveness for breaches of trust, the sense that others have our backs grows deeper and stronger. The servant-leader moves into the future and calls the team to new levels engagement and performance. The result: we come out better for the experience of mending relationships and healing wounds that inevitably hurt teams from time to time.

These seven steps grow team members’ confidence in and respect for the leader. We know that storms will come up and that we can weather them. When things go sideways, we will work for each other and with each other to get things back on track. And that builds engagement and performance.

It All Begins with You

Teams have each other’s backs because you have theirs. You extend the three dimensions of trust and work hard to earn it in return. And when people fall short, as they will, you initiate the seven steps, walking with your team on the journey of growth and flourishing. That’s the servant-leader in action.


Next up, recognition.

(Copyright © 2020 — Chris Alan Thyberg – The Serving Way. All rights reserved.)

The Servant-Leader in Action – Trust

We all need to work with people we trust to pursue the mission and meet expectations. We rely on our co-workers to share our team’s values and encourage us to use our distinctive strengths on the job every day. Nurturing trust is critical to the servant-leader’s lead…



Coaching is about becoming a great leader. It’s a partnership of trust and service. Relationship is everything.