The boardroom private dinning space at Fortnum and Mason

The Ethical Use of Trust by Leaders

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Louise Chaplin, Head of Board Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, shares some of the insights and observations from a fascinating round-table dinner event at Fortnum & Mason. Tracey Groves, CEO & Founder, Intelligent Ethics, who is passionate about helping leaders embrace what doing the right thing means for them, facilitated a vibrant discussion with a dozen Senior business leaders – Non Executive-Directors, CEO’s & Chairman.

As Tracey Groves observed, the issue of trust has become a hot topic in boardrooms in recent years. So how important is trust in business? What part should it play in leadership? How can leaders influence others through the use of trust? The key outcomes and learnings from our discussion were:

It’s all about relationships

  • It’s critical to recognise that the human element underpins trust.
  • You have to have real conversations, be truthful and make sure your message is understood.
  • It’s important to demonstrate qualities such as kindness, empathy and support.
  • Building relationships takes time, so make time for people.
  • A CEO’s power should derive from strong relationships with their team.
  • Admitting vulnerability builds trust; it shows you are genuine.
  • People must be able to trust their superiors when it’s difficult, not just when its easy.
  • With the right relationships, when things go wrong you can have an honest conversation and correct them.

Communication is key

  • It’s essential that leaders get out and about in a business, talk to colleagues and build relationships with different parts of the organisation.
  • People need to feel able to challenge and question the message from the top when it’s not clear.
  • Many leaders climb to the top of the ladder and forget what it’s like to be starting out in your career.
  • Conversations should not be top down; they should start at the bottom and work up.
  • It’s healthy to invite colleagues into board meetings and other sessions to observe and understand the purpose, culture and strategy of the business.

Don’t forget the people in the middle

  • Too many companies have moved away from training their middle management team. As a result, many managers feel disengaged and purposeless.
  • A good manager should be encouraged to know their team, their skills and motivations.
  • It’s important to talk to people on the shop floor – they often have the answers to business questions. By doing this, you’re not acting like a leader who just tells employees what to do, you’re asking the person doing the job how they would improve it; empowering them to make it work better.

What happens when you don’t bring your people with you?

  • There are numerous examples of businesses whose staff are conspicuously disgruntled because they feel disengaged from the company’s strategy. Employees perform better when the company strategy and vision is communicated and clear.
  • Staff often know, or suspect, more than senior executives realise about forthcoming changes to the business; if no one tells them what is planned, trust is impaired.

Trust is always earned, not demanded

  • You can’t insist that your team trust you. Trust is an outcome; you earn it through being trustworthy.
  • You have to make it clear that trust is a two-way street.
  • There is a growing disconnect between what leaders say and do, and a decline in trust as a consequence.
  • In the last 20 years, too many leaders have put themselves first before their people. They won’t trust you because you’re in a senior role; you need to execute that role well. Trust comes from walking the walk.
  • People want to be consulted; but ultimately, they want their leaders to make a decision.
  • Trust can be a negative entity if it is manipulated by leaders to their own advantage and agenda.

Consistency is central to trust

  • A business strategy has to be consistent. Positioning of the overall strategy is critical. Anybody in the team should be able to describe at any moment what they are doing and how it aligns with the business strategy.
  • You have to be authentic and show qualities such as humility, vulnerability, generosity and selflessness when appropriate.
  • Once a strategy is set, a leader should stand by it and not work around it when it suits a short-term goal.
  • The longer a leader is in position, the harder it is to hold a line, maintain consistency and preserve trust. This can be a brutal challenge for a CEO. Or is this an opportunity for a CEO to gain more trust in the medium term?
  • Short-term focus on numbers rather than the long-term mission is a significant challenge to leaders.

How transparency builds trust

  • People would much rather know than not know if there is bad news or changes around the corner. They would rather hear bad news than be kept in the dark. A more candid culture will be more successful.
  • Treat people like adults and be honest. If people don’t know what’s going on they feel patronised and irrelevant.
  • Regular town hall meetings can be challenging to a CEO, but build a powerful sense of trust.

Our rich dialogue on the topic of trust and trustworthiness highlighted the paradoxical nature and challenging role of ethical leadership in today’s uncertain and volatile world. The complexity of trust lies at the very heart of its simplicity, which is based on the ability to build enduring, values-based and authentic human relationships, in bad times as well as good times, and to recognise the power of trust as a driver of high performance and growth. But it’s not always easy to do this ethically. 

We list five critical questions below for you to continue to reflect upon and consider on the ethical use of trust by leaders:

1 – How can leaders distinguish ethical from unethical ways to build trust? Is it ever appropriate to build trust unethically?

2 – How can leaders maintain and project appropriate levels of self-trust / self-confidence? How can we expect others to trust us, if we don’t trust ourselves?

3 – If the two fundamental components of trustworthiness are motivation and competence, how can leaders demonstrate these in their day to day decision-making?

4 – The alignment between what leaders say, what they do and how they make others feel, is critical to building trust, yet it often becomes mis-aligned and trust is broken. What checks and balances can leaders put in place to safeguard the integrity of their actions and preserve trust?

5 – Does ethics inherently limit personal and/or organisational effectiveness? Must leaders sometimes choose between ethics and effectiveness?

Tracey Groves is the Founder and CEO of Intelligent Ethics. Her purpose is to help business leaders define and embrace what ‘doing the right thing’ means for them using behaviours, culture and building trust as critical levers for change.

Through her work Tracey support leaders of organisations to unlock high performance and business integrity by designing and developing enhanced risk-based corporate governance and integrity frameworks with ethics at the heart.

My focus is to help executive and management teams think differently about ethics as a business differentiator; to help to develop adaptive leaders and design an optimal culture that will re-build internal and external trust.

For more information, please visit her website: