Food for thought

A fresh perspective on Trust for leaders part 3

A short series of articles sharing insights and experience regarding the factors that allow leaders to significantly increase their effectiveness – just by doing a few key things differently and NOT by putting in more hours

Focus on interpersonal relationships

This article is written with a deep respect for your valuable time – it is meant to be read in less than 5 minutes, and to hopefully spark some good reflection and action.

Welcome back! So far, the first two articles of this series have provided an overview of the individual levers on how leaders can enhance trustworthiness and the ability to trust. This third article will provide a quick deep dive into the “interpersonal relationships” lever of the trust profile of a leader.

Let’s remind ourselves of a typical situation that I am sure is familiar to you. A leader convenes their management team for an offsite meeting to review how things have gone so far this year and how to approach best what lies ahead. These events are the best opportunities to experience the interpersonal relationships while real conversations among leaders are happening. This is different from individual executive coaching where, usually, the leader will talk about how they relate to others who are important to them in the professional context. In the observer and facilitator roles, however, we can see how they really do and build our own perspective. 

Three component parts for the core of the interpersonal relationships lever are: accessibility, appropriateness, and decency. Let's look at them one by one:

While there are individually different degrees of the appropriate level of accessibility (e.g. rooted in personal preferences), most will agree that being accessible is a key element to foster trust in a relationship. How can this be properly balanced with the need to spend 70% and more of your work time in meetings or in confidential conversations? It is about being a good listener. About being really interested in who people in your environment are (as opposed to just being interested in what they do). Accessible people pick up the small signals that are being sent and take an interest in what they mean. They seek contact for reasons other than just “getting the work done”, across hierarchies. And they react to requests within reasonable timeframes.

We tend to trust people who can create the results that are expected of them. That happens when they are appropriate for their role. This is a key component of credibility, and who would seriously call into question the equation “when credibility goes up, trust goes up”? Also, those who are seen as trustworthy are able to put preferences aside in order to achieve an objective. Witnessing two people, who are known to have a shaky relationship, finding a compromise on a specific issue, can be taken as a sign of a trustworthy individual at work.

We all know that two factors can easily make a person lose their decency towards others: Time pressure and power distance. The hotel guest who inappropriately treats the checkout clerk who doesn’t produce the hotel bill quickly enough is but one example. The reaction that sometimes arises out of time pressure is that people start to pull rank and lose their ability to treat the other person appreciatively. Now ask yourself: When was the last time that I might have been a bit rude in my tone of voice to someone working with me, due to time pressure? And when did I most recently use the phrase “because my role is such and such, I need you to do xyz now”? Would you have had other ways of getting what you need, without creating collateral damage? Those that are very trustworthy do.

In closing, let me repeat one key thing. When it comes to achieving a common goal as the result of interaction, all parties involved have an impact on this result. Pointing your finger at the other person involved, asking them to change their behaviour or point of view, is an option. Why should it work if you don’t show your readiness to change something yourself? At least try to engage in the conversation, if only this is to explain why your request is super-urgent now and doesn’t leave you the time to explain. Just make good on the expectation that you can and will do that later.

The next article will provide a quick deep dive into the “team collaboration” lever of the trust profile of a leader. See you again next week!

The content of the article relies predominantly on three sources: 

  • The work by the Trust Management Institute, mostly by Tom Sommerlatte and Jean-Luc Fallou, as laid out in their book “Quintessenz der Vertrauensbildung” (Springer, Heidelberg, 2012)
  • Several thousands of hours of working with senior executives and teams in their quest to improve individual and team effectiveness and reduce effort needed to achieve desired results
  • Many conversations with like-minded professionals who share the same interest

Happy reading – and please do let me know your reactions and questions. Always willing and happy to engage in a conversation!

You can reach me at

Rolf Pfeiffer is a Germany-based executive coach. He is one of the original founders of Leadership Choices, a professional services firm dedicated to leadership development - with European roots and global reach. His clients often say that Rolf effectively helps them to achieve outstanding results by taking on new perspectives on their activities and impact. Rolf has worked as an executive coach and facilitator since 2003, his assignments have taken him to many European countries, the Middle East, the USA and South Africa. He works in senior faculty and coach roles for the Center for Creative Leadership and is member of the executive education faculty of HEC Paris in Qatar. In his coaching work, he draws upon his consulting and business experience (from senior roles with leading firms in their respective fields) and helps his clients to navigate the dynamics of their organisational environment effectively.

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