Personal Trust? It May Just Be a Leader’s Most Important Tool

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Sep 2, 2013

Which is more important to establishing credibility: trust or competence?

The answer may surprise you.

As a veteran executive search consultant and a practicing executive coach, I was struck by a recent Harvard Business Review article  that started off with the famous Machiavelli question, “Is it better to be loved or feared?

From my experience, the premise that trust is more important than competence when establishing leadership credibility rings very true, as captured in the classic aphorism, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

Trust comes from empathy

When meeting a leader, earned trust precedes receptivity to competence, no matter how great an executive’s expertise is reputed to be. Put another way, it’s been said that “Who you are (can I trust you?) speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you’re saying (your knowledge).”

How often are we presented with compelling information from an individual who “just doesn’t feel right.” When there is something that we don’t feel we can trust about that person (often recognized very quickly, a la Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink), we have difficulty accepting whatever they have to offer. A trusting relationship based on empathy and a degree of openness must precede respect for skills if one is truly to be regarded as a leader.

And if trust comes partly from having been shown empathy, this is supported by Daniel Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence. It’s strange that some leaders feel a display of warmth toward an individual is a sign of emotionality — and potentially even favoritism — and therefore not reflective of the detachment needed to lead a group of individuals.

Why? Because loyalty and commitment, which follow from the enhanced engagement, are actually stronger as a result of that leader’s individual gesture.

There’s no question that the importance of non-verbal behaviors toward generating perceptions, even subtle empathy displayed by a nod or a smile, can hardly be overstated. How often have leaders heard that only 7 percent of communication is due to the actual content of their words, with the balance deriving from non-verbal and vocal factors?

Most interestingly, it’s been shown that when words and non-verbal behavior conflict (the classic example being “I’m NOT angry!” stated in hostile fashion), which one do we believe? The non-verbal card trumps the verbal every time.

“Getting centered” may be a leadership key

Competence or strength can certainly be displayed non-verbally, too, and yoga is a great example. While it’s become increasingly popular as a form of exercise, it’s paradoxically challenging to practice. A leader is in a stronger position to hold a pose or even to react calmly to a crisis, by having become inwardly clear and focused than by yelling out a rehearsed set of textbook steps.

In both of these contexts, we use the phrase “getting centered” to connote an inner balance and sense of control, but, perhaps more importantly, the ability to manage what we cannot foresee. And herein lies the “heightened sense of control” the most senior leaders feel.

Underlying the concepts of both trust and competence are self-awareness and social awareness, reflecting additional aspects in Goleman’s concept of emotional intelligence. Confident leaders find that “Smile, and the world smiles with you,” as we tend to mirror the behavior of those around us.

If only those who have traditionally viewed strength as detachment would choose to smile more often, they might be surprised to find how much more readily they could forge relationships where their strength and competence are acknowledged, and their influence upheld.

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