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Leadership surveys show that trust is the single most important factor on which followers evaluate a leader. The reverse is equally true although the word “reliability” is often substituted when speaking of followers. Reliability is a composite of trust and competence, and a leader needs to experience both in a follower. Competence itself, while valued, can be threatening if the leader senses that the follower is motivated more by a personal agenda than by a desire to support the leader and group.

Trust is essential in the leader-follower relationship if followers are to serve and influence the leader and organization. Yet sometimes it is elusive. How is trust won?

Trust is a subtle state between two people formed from an assessment of each other’s internal motives and external actions—if either are questionable trust does not gel.

The gelling agents of trust are our word and the judgment we display in our actions.

To earn trust we must go to great lengths to keep our word and, if we cannot keep it, we must communicate this as soon as possible.

To maintain trust we must listen carefully to both external signals and our inner voice, which quietly warn us against actions that may be in poor judgment.

Trust is a quality of relationship that can quickly return to its fluid, uncertain state in response to events and perceptions. Often we sense the change in trust before anything specific has been said or done about it, much as we sense an oncoming storm. If we sense a weakening of trust, we should make aggressive efforts to find out why, as it is the foundation of our relationship. It may be that we appear to have violated trust when we have not. In this case we should take great pains to clarify the situation, using any available documentation to dispel doubt.

If we have, indeed, violated trust through poor judgment or otherwise, the instinct to rationalize it can deliver a death knell to the relationship. Only by genuinely accepting responsibility for our actions and doing what we can to alleviate their consequences can we begin repairing trust.

If we have given genuine cause for trust to be lowered, it may dismay us to find how much time and contribution to the group is required before the breech is healed. A strong commitment to achieving the common purpose will be needed to sustain us through a difficult period.