Leadership Matters: Building a Culture of Trust

businesspeople stacking their hands together to show team unity and trust
Captain Mark E. Brouker, Pharm.D., MBA, FACHE, BCPS Photo
United States Navy (retired)
Brouker Leadership Solutions

3 minutes

What is the primary responsibility of a senior leader in any organization?

Why is it that mid-level managers from a variety of areas—sports, healthcare, sales, banking, insurance, manufacturing, churches, non-profits, academia and the military, to name a few—who appear ready, willing and able to succeed in senior leadership positions end up leading teams that fail outright, woefully underperform, or never come close to reaching full potential? One common reason is they do not understand that with their new role comes a renewed responsibility: their vitally important role in creating team culture. Specifically, creating a culture of trust. Many of these senior leaders fail because they focus on results rather than their vitally important role in achieving those results. To build a culture of trust, senior leaders should focus on the only aspect of their job where they have 100% control—their own behaviors.

Lead By Example

Exactly what is “team culture” and how is it created? Team culture is a product of the members’ collective behaviors. It’s defined by how people on the team interact with one another. Culture is learned behavior—it is not created from words in a policy and procedure manual. Team culture is created from—and a direct reflection of—the senior leader’s behaviors. In fact, it is the senior leader who is teaching others how to behave, and consequently, creating the culture. This is a key point: Senior leaders create the culture of the organizations they lead; senior leaders own the culture. For example, when a senior leader’s toxic behavior goes unchecked in an organization, it reinforces toxic behaviors down the chain of command. The result is easy to predict—a toxic team culture.

What specific behaviors create a culture of trust? Successful senior leaders focus on and excel at listening, showing empathy and ensuring every employee is able to feel engaged, fulfilled, supported and recognized. In this environment, when these senior leaders ask for opinions on issues, they’re told what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Importantly, because they’re better informed, decision making is optimized, necessary change is made with minimal drama, and crises faced are dealt with effectively. Things get done with less stress, less turnover and lower costs in labor and material.

Build Culture Constantly and Consistently

Where are the opportunities for senior leaders to employ—and leverage—these trust-building behaviors? Everywhere! Think of the hundreds of interactions these leaders have daily with team members—at the water cooler, a post, a meeting, passing in the hallway, a text message, during a social event. Certainly, while some interactions are more impactful than others—the scheduled one-on-one meeting will be more impactful than a chance meeting in the hallway—all impact trust.

Successful senior leaders understand, respect and fully embrace this simple dynamic: the strong correlation between their behavior, their employees’ well-being, team culture and team performance. They are mindful that the key to unlocking the power in the multitude of interactions they have with team members every day is in managing their behavior during these interactions. All are opportunities to display behaviors that can uplift others and build trust. As such, their focus, attention and energy are invested in the one area where they have 100% control. In short, successful senior leaders focus more on what they’re doing instead of what others are doing.

Captain Mark E. Brouker, United States Navy (retired), Pharm.D., MBA, FACHE, BCPS, is founder of Brouker Leadership Solutions and author of Lessons From the Navy: How to Earn Trust, Lead Teams, and Achieve Organizational Excellence.

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