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How to build trust between leaders and employees

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

How effective are you as a leader at building trust with direct reports and peers?

At the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, attended by business leaders and politicians from around the globe, one significant message given to this esteemed group of world leaders was how important it is for managers to improve their ability to facilitate the manager-employee relationship to impact productivity and results.

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At the core of this message were the benefits and role of emotional intelligence (EQ) in managing people relationships. EQ refers to one's ability to demonstrate empathy for others, self-management, interpersonal skills and self-awareness of how one person's behaviour impacts another's.

For leaders to obtain trust they first need to develop a healthy and effective two-way relationship. The Edelman Trust Barometer: Canada Results reports that CEO trust has fallen from 2010 to 2015. Trust is an intangible element that influences employees' loyalty, productivity, retention, engagement and health.

EQ provides insight on how leaders can better cope with their work demands and to build healthy relationship with their employees. One typical approach for developing a leadership skill like EQ is through leadership training and development programs, which is big business. In fact, leadership training is estimated to be a $2.6-billion industry in North America.

To self-evaluate the likelihood that those who report directly to you trust your intentions and actions, consider completing the following activity that measures the percentage of time you engage in four kinds of conversations with them.

Step 1: Leadership Relationship Awareness

The purpose of this step is to establish a baseline benchmark. The leader is asked to objectively estimate the percentage of time they spend with the average employee in each of the following types of conversations:

  • Correcting – pointing out a mistake
  • Instructions – assigning a task
  • Praise – acknowledging good work
  • Developmental – teaching, coaching and/or career planning.

The percentage breakdown must total 100 per cent.

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Step 2: Test Your Leadership Relationship Awareness Findings

Regardless of the percentages, the next step is to confirm your assumptions with a minimum of three to five employees. Ask each employee to estimate the percentage of time you spend with them in each of the four conversation types and what mix they would like. It's important to outline what you are doing and why; it's fine for them to know that you are self-evaluating what you think against their perceptions. Share your score with your employees to facilitate a conversation that can help you uncover gaps in your perceptions and find ways to improve your conversations. Having a score where a leader spends 80 to 90 per cent of all conversations correcting and giving instructions can be a barrier to building trust.

If you don't feel confident taking this step it's likely a sign that you have not established an open and trusting two-way relationship with your employees, and trust may be an issue. Leaders who embrace employees' feedback and input will find this activity easier than those who do not.

Step 3: Conversation Percentage Targets and Plan

No one formula will be 100 per cent effective. However, the closer the mix is 50 per cent employer (correcting and assigning) and 50 per cent employee (praise and development), the higher the probability employees will trust that their leader is interested in them as a person. Employees are more likely to trust and work to their full potential for a leader whom they sense believes in them.

Before being able to do the above activity some leaders may need professional development to enhance their EQ and communications skills to be comfortable having conversations that involve praise and their employees' success and career fulfilment.

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Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer, workforce productivity, for Morneau Shepell.

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