What Is Trust and How Do You Earn It?
How do you as a leader build trust and engage their employees? What makes employees willing to follow you? To come to you with problems? To take risks? To go above and beyond?
Fundamentally, trust comes down to two questions:
- Is this person on my side – that is, are they willing to help me?
- Is this person competent – are they able to help me?
Ultimately, employees will answer these employee engagement-related questions based on your actions as their leader. But language matters a lot too.
A Study on the “Language” of Trust
Our leadership microlearning experts point to a study from Southern Methodist University which found that certain verbal cues – cues that you can incorporate into your one-on-one engagement conversations — will increase trust and people’s willingness to engage with you.
In the experiment, researchers videotaped college students who’d been asked to speak off the cuff about various mundane topics – their classes, their experiences at college, what was going on in their lives at that moment. Then the researchers showed snippets of these videos – each snippet lasting about a minute and a half — to a second group of students and asked them to evaluate each speaker on a variety of measures, including trustworthiness. The researchers analyzed the language used in the interviews and how it related to trustworthiness.
Four Verbal Cues
The researchers found four verbal cues that were associated with high levels of perceived trust:
- Speaking simply and directly
- Using fewer “negative emotion” words – words such as “angry,” “sad” and “wrong”
- Speaking in the present tense – that is, statements focused on the here-and-now rather than what’s happened in the past, and
- Using fewer “I,” “me” and “our” statements
Of the four, the one with the greatest impact on trust is speaking simply and directly. Similar to our research on strategic clarity, researchers measured speaking simply by counting the number of “unique words” in each video snippet. People who speak simply use a limited vocabulary of everyday words over and over. Those who fill their speech with jargon, fillers, and qualifiers end up with a higher unique word count, and are perceived as anxious, uncertain, or dishonest.
For example, how much would you trust someone who said this?
“We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments. I was overenthusiastic in my comments … particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place.”
That statement, which of course sounds evasive and dishonest, came from Nixon’s press secretary in 1973, during Watergate.
You’d probably trigger the same reaction if you told employees:
“We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of the business. I was overenthusiastic in my comments … particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place.”
Employees trust straight, simple talk: “We made a mistake. We gave you bad information. I’m sorry, and we’ll be more careful in the future.”
Avoid Negative Emotions
The research found that words such as “angry,” “sad” and “wrong” undermine perceived trustworthiness, even when the speakers were talking about mundane topics. It’s easy for negative language to creep into conversations with employees.
For example, during day-to-day operations, we’re often more focused on what’s not working than on successes. Of course, you need to run project retrospectives to find and fix problems. But you can use positive instead of negative language. Instead of asking “What’s wrong, what needs to be fixed?” you might ask “What do we want to achieve? What are we doing right, and how can we do more of it?”
Present Tense and Fewer “I” Statements
The last two factors — present tense and fewer “I” statements – are about mindfulness and focus. Employees want to know that they are your first concern. Talking about yourself or about the past takes the spotlight off the employee’s biggest concern – whether you can help them right now.
The Bottom Line
Trust is the basis for strong, healthy relationships. As a manager, pay attention to the language you use with your employees. Your actions may matter the most, but your words set the stage for trust too.
To learn more about how leaders build trust and engage employees, download 29 Ways to Build and Maintain Trust as a Leader