The two crucial qualities leaders need to build trust (and how to learn them in 15 minutes)

What’s not to trust?
What’s not to trust?
Image: Reuters/Donald Heupel
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It seems obvious that leaders should be nice and know what they are doing. But people still study these things, and their research confirms (pdf) that warmth and competence are the two most important qualities of trustworthy leaders. But building trust is easier said than done. How can you be nice without seeming insincere? How do you show competence without showing off, or looking like a jerk?

Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, authors of Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both, have developed a collection of “nano-tools”—simple actions that leaders can learn and use in less than 15 minutes. The duo, professors at the Columbia Business School and Wharton, argue that contrary to popular belief, trust does not take ages to build. At the same time, there’s no such thing as an inherently trustworthy leader—executives have to earn it.

Here’s how:

Show concern for others

Know about about your employees’ lives. Ask about spouses, kids, health issues, and aging parents. (John Gottman, the famous marriage guru, refers to this as love maps: humans like to be known and appreciated. Apparently this also applies to bosses and employees as much as to romantic partners.) Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi wrote letters to the parents of 29 senior Pepsi executives, telling them what wonderful people their children were, praise which surely got back to her colleagues.

But the authors offer a warning: if your concern is not authentic, or you fail to actually listen to the answers people give you, you will not build trust.

Use non-verbal clues: physical contact matters

Technology might enable teleconferencing and flexible work arrangements, but face-to-face meetings are great opportunities to build trust. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh holds an annual New Year’s Eve party at his Las Vegas home and likes to hang out at raves with those close to him. “Being in the same place signals commitment to the relationship, heightens our focus, and allows for more complete communication—including the ability to project warmth,” the authors write. Friendly handshakes, a pat on the back, or sustained eye contact apparently go a long way.

Beware over-competence

If your employees know you are capable, but you are struggling to convey warmth, show vulnerability. Talk about a setback you faced or a failure you endured. Admit gaps in knowledge. Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing, owner of Uniqlo, often tells others that he was turned down for a bank loan, overpowered by dominant wholesalers, and came close to bankruptcy on numerous occasions (his book is called One Win, Nine Losses). It helps to look human.

Jargon can be useful

Speaking simply would seem to be intuitive advice. Not so, the authors argue. Sometime jargon conveys competence, and can help to build trust among certain constituencies. “In some industries, the correct use of specific terms and jargon helps signal your competence, showing that you ‘get’ your product, strategy, or corporate culture,” they write. Keeping it simple didn’t make billionaires out of the founders of today’s tech giants.