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Earning trust: Five building blocks for cultivating trust

By Nicola Field

As human beings our default position is to trust others. Research noted in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) shows that human beings are naturally predisposed to trust – it’s in our genes and our childhood learning.. And most of the time it is a survival mechanism that has served our species well.

It’s only when we find evidence to the contrary that we stop trusting. And judging by the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, this is exactly what’s happening.

“The past decade has seen a loss of faith in traditional authority figures and institutions,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman.

He explains that there is a growing feeling of pessimism about the future, with only one in three mass population respondents in the developed world believing his or her family will be better off in the next five years. Just one in five believe ‘the system’ is working for them, and 70% desire change.

Tony Beaven CMgr FIML, General Manager of Elders Financial Planning, believes the erosion of trust within institutions has a lot to do with the environment we live in today. The pace of globalisation, disruption, and technological advancement are all making trust an increasingly scarce commodity for the majority of business leaders. As Beaven explains, “This can often see the needs of the organisation take priority over the relational aspects of building and maintaining the trust relationship throughout the organisation.”

And the erosion of our natural predisposition to trust goes even deeper than that.

Darren Fleming, behavioural scientist and author of Don’t Be A D!ck, says, “We tend to regard people who don’t trust as paranoid. But in many ways our sense of trust has been abused, and a lack of trust is the outcome. “If we look around the world, leaders haven’t been doing what we want them to do. This has led to a disconnect from leaders who are supposed to be pursuing our interests. The banking royal commission highlighted that we can’t always trust leaders in our business community – again because they weren’t doing what we believe they should be doing.”

Gabrielle Dolan, speaker and author on business storytelling and real communication, offers this perspective: “In these days of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ we are moving away from that default position of trust, and becoming inherently more suspicious. The result is that leaders have to work harder to gain trust.”


While the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer signifies that people are generally less trustful, we haven’t entirely given up on trust.

Edelman says, “People have lost confidence in the social platforms that fostered peer-to-peer trust. These forces have led people to shift their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.”

Intriguingly, Edelman found 75% of people globally trust their employer to do what is right. Moreover, 76% are looking to business leaders to create positive change.

This suggests leaders and managers have some solid responsibilities to live up to. But why does trust even matter? And how can it be nurtured?


Beaven says trust is important “because if you don’t allocate enough time to get the right balance of relational factors versus the business needs of the organisation, your business is potentially subject to turnover issues and a diminishing culture that can ultimately impact the survival of the organisation.”

For Fleming, the issue is clear cut. “Without trust nothing happens. We only get in our cars because we trust that people will drive on the correct side of the road. We turn up to our jobs because we trust that we’ll get paid.”

Fleming adds, “Trust is what allows us to contribute. If we don’t have trust, we have to second guess everything going on.”

As Beaven points out, trust can deliver real advantages to organisations. Dolan expands on that point, saying, “When employees have trust, decisions can be made more quickly, and workplace teams are more likely to buy into those decisions.”

She adds, “Trust also makes change easier because employees are confident that leaders will look after them and do the ‘right thing’ by them. Trust is especially critical in peak periods as staff can be sure that leaders ‘have their back’, and consequently they are likely to give more.”


The big question is how managers and leaders can go about building trust. It’s not always an easy task, especially as Australians and Kiwis have what Dolan diplomatically refers to as “a tremendous capacity to detect the inauthentic.”

As Fleming notes, “Developing trust calls for a far more proactive approach than a simple open door policy – after all, the trap door spider also has an open door policy.” Here are five proactive steps that leaders can take.


A key starting point in developing trust is transparency. “If you say you are going to do something, then do it,” advises Fleming. “Explain why you are acting in a particular way.”

He adds, “This is where politicians often get things so wrong. People are big enough to handle the truth but politicians don’t give it to us. Instead they try to secure the popular vote by not being truthful.”

Dolan agrees that transparency is essential. She adds, “It is very important to have transparent communication. Even if you have nothing to communicate, let your team know this.”


“Good leaders with strong personal convictions explain what they are doing,” says Fleming.

“A lot of the time people in the workforce don’t know why they’re doing something. If someone on your team questions why they have been asked to complete a task, explain why. It’s not good enough to just say ‘because I’m in charge’.”


Be prepared to show a vulnerable side. Dolan explains, “The leadership style of never showing weakness, never making mistakes and having all the answers is outdated. The ability to show a vulnerable side calls for courage and self-assurance.”

According to Dolan, being able to show vulnerability is a sign of strength. Conversely, refusing to demonstrate vulnerability is a sign of weakness.

“The maxim that ‘perfect leaders aren’t real, and real leaders are imperfect’ is very true,” says Dolan. “When someone is trying to be too perfect they don’t come across as approachable, and we aren’t comfortable with them.”

This view is confirmed by the HBR study, which found we’re far more likely to trust people who are similar to us in some dimension.


Fleming has developed his own mantra for building trust, “Don’t turn your back on people, don’t cover your ears, and don’t close your heart”.

He explains this saying, “Invite people into conversations. We are social creatures and we don’t like to be excluded. When you include people, they feel protected because they are part of the tribe.”

Be prepared to listen to others. “We all have a voice and we all want to share and contribute,” adds Fleming. “When you shut people down they become resentful.”

Keeping your heart open matters too. As Fleming notes, “It can be difficult to find a balance between leading and building trust. It’s about knowing your people, reading the environment and having social awareness.

“Observe your team, ask if everything is okay, and adopt an empathetic person-to-person approach. We’re all people trying to get through life. A lot of leaders lose sight of this amid the ‘we’re here to make money’ attitude.”


Dolan recommends sharing personal stories to build trust. “It can be very powerful as long as you’re sending a business message to demonstrate personal values,” she explains. However, this calls for leaders to truly know their own values, such as integrity, respect and teamwork.

“Do things that demonstrate your values,” says Dolan. “For example, you may believe in the value of feedback but this means you need to be able to accept feedback yourself.”

Storytelling can be used at team meetings, presentations, or even in a one-on-one situation. Dolan offers an example of how very public storytelling can deepen relationships.

“A client of mine was speaking at an event, and she openly described how the amount of time she was spending at work was starting to threaten her marriage,” notes Dolan. “It was a deeply personal anecdote. But by sharing it she was acknowledging ‘I haven’t got this right’.

“The response from the audience was exceptional,” adds Dolan. “Many people thanked the speaker – it just hadn’t occurred to those she worked with that this person would be having these sorts of issues. It gave others permission to share their story.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 print edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s exclusive Member’s magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact


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