The Most Important Leadership Behavior That Builds Trust (and 3 ways to demonstrate it)

integrityLast week I conducted a webinar on the Four Leadership Behaviors That Build or Destroy Trust. During the session I asked the participants to select one of four leadership behaviors that influenced them the most in building trust.

With over 450 people responding, 61% said acting with integrity – being honest in word and deed was the most important behavior leaders use to build trust. The second most important behavior identified by this group was maintaining reliability – doing what you say you’ll do, followed by caring about others – showing care and compassion and demonstrating competence – being good at what he/she does. (These four behavioral areas are the cornerstones of a trusting relationship.)

I’ve conducted this survey with thousands of individuals and acting with integrity is consistently rated the most important leadership behavior that builds trust. So what does it mean for a leader to act with integrity? The word integrity stems from the Latin adjective integer which means “complete” or “wholeness.” Integrity in behavior means you act with a sense of consistency and steadiness that reflects an alignment between your espoused values and your actions. There are three key ways you can demonstrate integrity with those you lead:

1. Be honest – It seems silly this even has to be mentioned, but all you have to do is read the news headlines to understand even the most well-intentioned leaders can struggle with honesty. The basics apply here: don’t lie, cheat, or steal. But being honest also means not stretching the truth, telling half-truths, omitting facts out of convenience, or failing to speak the truth when needed. Honesty is always the best policy. Period.

2. Live out your values – Do you know your core values? What motivates you as a leader? When faced with a difficult choice, what are the values you use to filter your decision? Developing and articulating your values, and asking others to hold you accountable to living out those behaviors, will help keep your ego in check and allow others to gain confidence in the consistency of your behavior. Living your values is walking the talk.

3. Treat people fairly – Do you treat people fairly or do you play favorites? Whenever I ask leaders this question I typically get a response like, “I’m being fair because I treat everyone the same.” If that’s the way you think, I’d like to challenge your viewpoint. One of the most unfair things a leader can do is to treat everyone the same because it takes the individual’s needs and circumstances out of the equation. Leaders often resort to this approach because it’s the easiest and safest way to go. You can’t get accused of playing favorites if you treat everyone the same, right? Instead, I would suggest you consider treating people equitably and ethically given their unique situation. There are certain policies and procedures that need to be applied across the board, but leaders will find they can build trust more deeply by treating people fairly according to their specific situation and upholding consistent principles with their entire staff.

The cost of not acting with integrity is immense and recovering from a breach of integrity is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges a leader can face. That’s because people perceive integrity to be about who you are as a leader, not just what you do. One only needs to look at today’s news headlines to see the devastating effects of these failures. Politicians resigning from office, corporate leaders arrested for wrongdoing, celebrities losing millions from lost endorsements, and spiritual leaders being disgraced are all results from not acting with a sense of integrity.

The value of acting with integrity is an important reminder for any of us in leadership positions. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach, project team member, boss, or any other role that requires you to influence others in a leadership capacity, being consistent in word and deed is the most powerful way to build trust with others.

10 thoughts on “The Most Important Leadership Behavior That Builds Trust (and 3 ways to demonstrate it)

  1. “Living out your values.” Something I feel like so many people in leadership positions don’t do. Maybe they feel pressure by senior leaders to perform what benefits the company and not the people. Ultimately, going against theirs, and their company’s, established values.

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