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17 ways emotionally intelligent leaders build a culture of trust

December 14, 2023

Trust makes doing your job as a leader easier in just about every way possible.

So if we take it for granted that trusting relationships coincide with the people around us performing at their best (which, of course, means we can perform at our best), then how do we establish that trust?

Certain personality traits are part of the equation. An even bigger part is behaviours, which most of us learn through years of trial and error. After 7.5 years leading teams, I’m confident enough in these behaviours to share them and (hopefully) provide a shorter path to managerial bliss for others.

Fostering trust through behaviours

When I think about the best managers I’ve worked under or alongside, as well as what’s worked with my teams, there are a handful of behaviours that seem to go over well.

Care. Good leaders don’t fake this. They actually, truthfully care enough to understand their team’s different circumstances, backgrounds, cultures, and struggles – and celebrate their successes. It makes the people around them feel safe.

Listen. They listen to what other people are saying and resist the urge to offer solutions to every problem they get a whiff of. (To be fair, I find this really really hard.) Active listening builds rapport with the other person. Simply waiting for a chance to speak does not.

Empathise. Trusted leaders imagine how other people might feel about anything from an internal decision to an error message in the product. By using empathy as their compass, they signal to people affected by a decision or action that they’re not alone and have been heard.

Communicate. They share as much as they can as often as they can. The trust they show in their teams by being open and truthful with their teams earns reciprocal trust.

Show vulnerability. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? It’s ok not to have all the answers. Your team doesn’t expect that of you. (They do expect you to admit what you don’t know, however – see “Communicate”, above). It’s also ok to be passionate about things, both at and outside of work. Vulnerability and passion make you relatable, which, in turn, engenders trust.

Be kind. I don’t think this needs an explanation.

Ways emotionally intelligent leaders build a culture of trust

  • Keep a journal – Journals help you improve your self-awareness. If you spend just a few minutes each day writing down your thoughts, this can move you to a higher degree of self-awareness.
  • Slow down – When you experience anger or other strong emotions, slow down to examine why. Remember, no matter what the situation, you can always choose how you react to it.
  • Know your values – Do you have a clear idea of where you absolutely will not compromise?
  • Hold yourself accountable – If you tend to blame others when something goes wrong, stop. Make a commitment to admit to your mistakes and to face the consequences, whatever they are. You'll probably sleep better at night, and you'll quickly earn the respect of those around you.
  • Practice being calm – The next time you're in a challenging situation, be very aware of how you act. Do you relieve your stress by shouting at someone else? Practice deep-breathing exercises to calm yourself. Also, try to write down all of the negative things you want to say, and then rip it up and throw it away. Expressing these emotions on paper (and not showing them to anyone!) is better than speaking them aloud to your team. What's more, this helps you challenge your reactions to ensure that they're fair!
  • Re-examine why you're doing your job – It's easy to forget what you really love about your career. So, take some time to remember why you wanted this job. If you're unhappy in your role and you're struggling to remember why you wanted it, try the Five Whys technique to find the root of the problem. Starting at the root often helps you look at your situation in a new way.
  • And make sure that your goal statements are fresh and energising.
  • Know where you stand – Determine how motivated you are to lead.
  • Be hopeful and find something good – Motivated leaders are usually optimistic , no matter what problems they face. Adopting this mindset might take practice, but it's well worth the effort.
  • Every time you face a challenge, or even a failure, try to find at least one good thing about the situation. It might be something small, like a new contact, or something with long-term effects, like an important lesson learned. But there's almost always something positive, if you look for it.
  • Put yourself in someone else's position – It's easy to support your own point of view.
  • Pay attention to body language – Perhaps when you listen to someone, you cross your arms, move your feet back and forth, or bite your lip.
  • Respond to feelings – You ask your assistant to work late – again. And although he agrees, you can hear the disappointment in his voice. So, respond by addressing his feelings. Tell him you appreciate how willing he is to work extra hours, and that you're just as frustrated about working late. If possible, figure out a way for future late nights to be less of an issue (for example, give him Monday mornings off).
  • Learn conflict resolution – Leaders must know how to resolve conflicts between their team members, customers, or vendors.
  • Improve your communication skills – How well do you communicate?
  • Learn how to praise others – As a leader, you can inspire the loyalty of your team simply by giving praise  when it's earned. Learning how to praise others is a fine art, but well worth the effort.

Key Points

To be effective, leaders must have a solid understanding of how their emotions and actions affect the people around them. The better a leader relates to and works with others, the more successful he or she will be.

Take the time to work on self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Working on these areas will help you excel in the future!

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