LA 018: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Increase Engagement

A few weeks ago I recorded a podcast about the Power of Trust to Succeed and many people wrote and asked why it is that you can do something with the very best intentions but find that it backfires.
It seems that it is very easy to lose someone's trust but oh so difficult to gain it back.

Think of trust as a wallet full of cash.

I know that it's rare to have such a thing, but imagine, OK?

Say I have a couple of thousand bucks in various bills in my trust wallet. Every time I do or say something that causes you to lose faith in me, to lose your trust, for whatever reason, is like asking you to take whatever amount of cash out of my wallet.

Of course, being a normal human being, you'll take the 100 dollar bills first.

If, foolishly I hurt you in some way again, you'll take another chunk from my wallet. A third time and you'll probably take the wallet and empty it.

Now I have no trust with you. Is there any way I can influence you if you don’t trust me? Of course not.


If you do not trust me, the only way I can get you to do what I want would be to manipulate you, or coerce you. That is, I would resort to lies, half-truths, twisted words, force, threats or bullying.

Instead, slowly and steadily and patiently, I work hard and begin to earn your trust back.

Little by little, you begin to trust me again. So you give me a two dollar bill from the hundreds you took when I lost your trust.

I'm consistent, and build trust with you again. And perhaps you'll give me back a five dollar bill or even, if I've been especially good, 10 bucks.

This goes on and on, because you'll be very reticent to give me back your trust. It's normal. It's the way your brain works. You hold a very vivid, pain filled memory of the times I broke your trust and a distant, slightly happy memory of when I build it in the first place.

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Painful memories are much more dominant than good memories. We are wired for negativity.

We have two networks for this in our brains:

  1. The pain network, which includes the Thalamus, the Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Gyrus and the Insula.
  2. Then we have the Reward network, which consists of the Amygdala, the Ventral Striatum and the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex.

Now you don’t need to remember all the terms, but I've link some great articles and videos above if you’re interested to learn more about the neuroscience behind all of this.

When I cause you pain, such as physically inflicting pain, or snubbing you, taking something from you that you care about, treating you unfairly, betraying you, or simply speak negatively about you, then your pain network is activated.

Your reward network is activated when you feel things like physical pleasure, a sense of belonging or inclusion, having a good reputation with others, being treated fairly and justly, and even giving to others – because of a feeling of abundance, or simply being appreciated for doing something or just for being you. These things make you feel good.

Smart leaders know this and continuously activate your reward network – which makes you more productive and effective. Poor leaders activate your pain network.

The biggest difficulty for leaders is one word and that word is “continuously”.

A leader can be deemed trustworthy by you for years and then they inflict pain on you in some way. They break your trust. Even blaming others for their own failings could be painful for you. At that moment, you take that first big bill from their wallet full of trust.

You may trust them again, but there will be a delay in making the decision to trust as you check your personal records – first in the insula and then in the Anterior Cingulate Gyrus (ACG).

The insula in your brain, helps us anticipate what something will feel like before it happens, like the proverbial “gut-feel” or “6th-sense”.

The Anterior Cingulate Gyrus (ACG) allows us to shift between thoughts, weigh up options and make predictions.

Let's say that I was your boss. You trusted me implicitly because for a long time I've been a great boss. Then one day you heard that I had spoken disparagingly about you and blamed you for a failure that wasn't your fault, and all behind your back. All of a sudden you feel hurt. In spite of years of a good, trusting relationship, you've heard something negative. Of course, because you are a mature and responsible person, you dismiss the idea. It's hearsay, not fact and surely I wouldn’t do such a thing.

Everything seems normal. But you are now wondering when you speak to me, or even just think about me and checking that pain circuit. That “gut feel” from the Insula, that shift between the two options, “do I don’t I trust him?”

When someone loses trust, yet wants to trust you, there is doubt and questioning in the brain. Like good and bad angels whispering in your ear. When someone loses trust, yet wants to trust you, there is doubt and questioning in the brain. Like good and bad angels whispering in your ear.

I ask you to undertake a task. And the pain circuit whirs into life triggered by that emotional memory of pain. Perhaps you are bold enough to ask outright. I deny everything of course as completely untrue.

Even then, your Insula is engaged checking that “6th sense” and your ACG weighs the options that I might be being truthful, that nothing was said, or now, worse… I could be lying to cover up my own guilt for having blamed you wrongly in the first place.

Your own history of experience with other people in similar painful memories will determine whether you choose to trust me at this point or not.

It's bad enough that someone would lose trust in you because of one single error. It's worse that the “error” could have been malicious gossip by another party.

Trust is a fragile thing. When we do trust someone, and we decide to trust without being completely certain, there is a delay. Imperceptible at times, because our brain works very very rapidly, but we still check our pain circuits, just to be sure. You trust me again and find that I speak highly of you to others, I tell you how appreciative I am for your diligence and hard work. Your reward circuit is activated and there's another dollar bill in my wallet of trust.

When faced with a decision to trust, or not to trust, we try to reduce uncertainty . We will either trust without being certain, or shift the burden by redefining the task.

When faced with a decision to trust, or not to trust, we try to reduce uncertainty . We will either trust without being certain, or shift the burden by redefining the task.

When you trust me as your boss, you become increasingly engaged. The delay in deciding to trust me or not gets shortened, your productivity increases and you have a greater sense of safety and security, which increases your engagement and productivity even further.

Good leaders understand this, and make sure that they avoid triggering your pain circuit. They never betray your trust, and if per chance they inadvertently do break your trust one day, they work hard to regain it. Good leaders keep you, but might not continuously increase your engagement and one day, someone offers you a reward that you would like to have and you shift to another boss and hope that you can trust them.

Great leaders make sure they also activate your reward circuits. They speak highly of you, they appreciate you, they always treat you and everyone else fairly, they are never biased, they always hold you in the highest esteem. Great leaders give you deserved credit for your ideas and contributions and never take the credit that belongs to someone else. Even when they themselves are being unfairly treated, denigrated or the victim of malicious gossip, a great leader doesn’t bite back. Great leaders treat even their enemies with respect and dignity. Great leaders are few and far between. Great leaders build your trust in them and increase your engagement. Do you aspire to be one?

Check out this episode!

Professional Leadership Caddy

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

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I combine time-tested systems, behavioural neuroscience and psychology research and practical tools with the accountability and guidance of a 1:1 coach and mentor to UnLock your Talent, UnStuck Your Potential and UnLeash Your Performance.

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