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To Win the Trust of Your Stakeholders, Avoid These 3 Leadership Traps

How can you maintain trust with your teams and customers in the middle of a global trust crisis? Watch out for three common pitfalls.

When leaders put trusted relationships at the heart of everything they do, they unlock a force for good that can boost individual and team engagement, strengthen organizational culture, and produce better business outcomes. [Malte Müeller for Salesforce]

The job of every leader is to build and maintain trust with their teams, customers, and other stakeholders. In a global trust crisis, this is harder and more important than ever.

Although the problem of vanishing trust in leaders and institutions is systemic, individual leaders have the power to create immediate change. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer found businesses are the most trusted institutions, over government and media. Data from Salesforce’s annual global employee survey shows that when leaders consistently role model trust, it can boost employee engagement and retention by up to 27%. These are bottom line metrics that connect people, shape culture, and boost performance. Individual leadership choices and actions directly influence each of them. 

In a work-from-anywhere world, putting trusted relationships at the heart of everything you do can be the catalyst for jumpstarting these critical drivers. This is how leaders capture and keep the competitive advantage of trust.

So how can you do it? To make it easier, watch out for three common pitfalls, and instead apply the opposite action.

Avoid the mum effect 

It’s easier to share good news than it is to deliver bad news. Sounds obvious, but trust is at stake when leaders withhold, delay, or filter their communication and information sharing. 

Whether they do it consciously or not, leaders succumb to the “mum effect” for a few reasons. They may over-flex their empathy and try to protect people from stressful or traumatic news. Or they may not want to be associated with the negative information to preserve their own reputation or standing.

While this phenomenon is not new, in a trust recession and a predominantly remote work environment, it’s more insidious. That’s because delaying or avoiding communication – whether it’s feedback, disappointing sales numbers, or any other challenging piece of information – can keep people disconnected and block solutions.

Instead: turn up the candor

If you’re worried about how others will take the bad news, you can adjust your communication approach and tone to demonstrate empathy. But remember, withholding from them isn’t empathetic. It’s domineering.

Likewise, if you’re worried about being associated with the bad news, know that you’ll gain more credibility through directness rather than evasiveness. Yes, it’s important for leaders to be measured, but unambiguity matters more. Reckless candor isn’t the answer. It’s about using your situational awareness to craft the right, unhurried message – as quickly as possible – for maximum understanding, which is a building block of trust.

Limit disappearing acts

You can’t follow someone you can’t see. That is why visibility and transparency mean so much in the realm of leadership. They are not just buzzwords; they produce the visceral experiences and tangible markers that employees evaluate as they gauge their level of trust and commitment to a business leader.

Leaders don’t alway have to be front-and-center, but they need to be seen, heard, and felt consistently. Unfortunately, it’s easier for leaders to disappear in the eyes of their colleagues in a work-from-anywhere world. If you’re not in a Slack thread or on a video call, being “out-of-sight and out-of-mind” is just more common. 

Instead: be a force of stability

To limit unintentional vanishing acts that reduce your connection and relevance to others, think strategically about where and when you need more presence. Who needs a little more face time and encouragement? Which projects need a visible sign of support or validation? Which peers or stakeholders want to see and feel your solidarity, or get your directional perspective on their priorities?

Answering questions like these helps you find the right balance between aggressively solving problems and caring for your people. As you home in on where your contribution needs to be seen and felt the most, showing up consistently in those moments of consequence will immediately boost your integrity, which is key to any trusted relationship. Over time, this reliable presence makes you a force for stability. Not surprisingly, stability is still among the top qualities that employees want their leaders to demonstrate in this topsy-turvy world.

Stop emotional whitewashing

Imagine a Greek village on a distant hillside where all of the houses are uniformly painted with a brilliant whitewash. Despite their intrinsic differences, they all look the same.

At times leaders are guilty of whitewashing as well. For example, with performance whitewashing, leaders treat all goals the same, which obscures true priorities and undermines more important outcomes. Emotional whitewashing – when leaders approach people and events with the same one-dimensional response – is also common, and it can make it harder for employees to fully trust their leaders.

Instead: connect with empathy

To avoid this, increase the frequency and depth of your check-ins and make room for the whole person when you do connect. Show them you care by asking questions, listening deeply, and matching your degree of empathy with their level of sharing. If things veer toward your discomfort zone, resist the urge to keep them at arm’s length and risk being vulnerable. And don’t make it one-way. As a leader, the more you choose to reveal – and the deeper you go – the more trust you’ll build.

Pausing the business agenda momentarily may feel like a risk, but it’s not nearly as risky as losing your vital connection with the person. That’s because great leadership begins and ends with a firm and consistent focus on people. This includes their hopes, fears, motivations, and needs. Instead of whitewashing emotions and becoming numb to the challenges that your employees, customers, and stakeholders face, tune into the full emotional range and be a champion of their ultimate concerns.

Although trust is broken, it doesn’t have to stay that way. If leaders can avoid these three common pitfalls by taking action in the opposite direction, they can create more trust in the relationships that matter most. 

In the middle of a trust crisis, this is not just a good way to lead. It’s the only way.


Jesse Sostrin, Ph.D. is VP, Global Head of People Leadership Development at Salesforce and the author of several books, including “The Manager’s Dilemma” and “Beyond the Job Description.” He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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