Leading from Trust

Trust works like magic in an organisation. It is the secret ingredient that enables engagement, collaboration and performance in spite of burdensome bureaucracy, archaic it-systems or strategies long past their due date. Trust reduces complexity and brings out the best in people as well as companies.

When we trust our colleagues, we dare to ask for help when needed and it is easier for us to find the courage to innovate and change. In addition, we are more productive when we can focus fully on our own tasks and responsibilities, knowing that our colleagues take care of other issues and “have our backs”.*



Today, most large organisations struggle with a trust deficiency. Often externally but even more so internally. The good news is that a growing number of companies are aware of the problem, the bad news is that they often try to address it the wrong way.

People get it wrong, despite the best intentions, when they strive to become trustworthy. They want their customers, stakeholders and employees to trust them. And they use a multitude of tricks to build and strengthen an image of trustworthiness and authenticity – from dark blue colour schemes and headquarters in steel and marble, to elaborate storytelling about the historical roots of the company or founder. But these efforts are seldom enough. Building trust goes both ways, it is in essence a relationship. To get trust, you need to first show trust.


Pioneered by thought leaders like Jerry Michalski, the concept of “design from trust” has started to impact the thinking on innovation, design and business in a growing number of organisations.   

The basic idea is that if you dare to trust your customers then they will respond in return with a much higher degree of engagement, commitment and loyalty. Two classic examples of companies with business models that have been founded on the concept of “design from trust” is AirBnB and Uber. Strangers I have never met will sleep in my bed, play with my kids' toys and look in my drawers? In the middle of the night, I will get into an anonymous car and trust a man I have never met to drive me safely to my home?

Today, using Uber or AirBnB does not seem like anything extraordinary but when the concepts were introduced, their services were radical changes to how we were used to being perceived and treated as customers in hotels and taxis. The two business models explored the human insight that when we are met with trust most of us respond by being the very best we can be.

A more recent example is the Chinese mobile phone company Xiaomi which was tremendously successful in Asia, and is now the market leader in both China and India. Xiaomi has created a close and special relationship with their lead users who are encouraged every week to submit suggestions for upgrades and refinements to the Xiaomi operating system. Many tech companies have had success with different forms of open innovation and co-creation, but Xiaomi is doing it with an unprecedented impact and speed. They dare to show more trust in their users than most western companies.**


You expose yourself. Trust is built through mutual giving and the thing that you give is confidence in others. If I for example confide something to you, which will create problems for me if you tell it to my wife or boss, then I have shown trust. Hopefully, you do not betray my trust, but instead repay it by sharing something that makes you vulnerable. Trust is a relation that grows and is reproduced through mutual transparency and vulnerability. We dare to depend on each other.

Many managers find it difficult to handle mistrust and create new trust because they are not used to exposing themselves. From talking openly about doubt and failures to asking for help. They often feel they have to live up to very high expectations from their surroundings (and from themselves) and that they are expected to always have an answer for everything. The expectation that top management is infallible and powerful is embedded in the corporate culture of many organisations. And very hard to live up to as a leader.

Leading from trust starts by lowering expectations and admitting to yourself and others that you and your company are not perfect. To acknowledge that the next great innovations might be coming from lead users rather that the internal R&D department, or that the local team in an affiliate might have better ideas about how to execute the new strategy in their country than the consultants hired by headquarters thousands of miles away.

*For more on the positive impact of trust and psychological safety, I can recommend looking at the findings from Google’s Project Aristotle and the research of Amy Edmondson.  

**Learn more about the success of Xiaomi.