Building Higher Trust 118 Foundation of Trust

March 30, 2023

In my leadership classes, I do a brainstorm of the things leaders can do to build trust. The entries come quickly. Soon we have a list of more than thirty things leaders can do to build trust. The items are all pretty obvious. Here is a very short list to give an idea of the kinds of things people list:

  1. Walk your talk.
  2. Be honest.
  3. Be transparent.
  4. Praise people when they do well.
  5. Right wrongs.
  6. Show respect.

Once we have a good list, I ask a couple of questions.  First, do you agree that all leaders want to build higher trust?  They all do! Second, I ask a more probing question. If the way to build trust is so obvious, why do most leaders do a poor job of it? That question is harder to answer. I share my observation based on 40 years of experience with trust. There are four foundational conditions that must be in place for the other actions to build trust. If leaders are not practicing these four concepts, little real trust is generated.  It does not matter how much the leaders practice the hundreds of obvious little things.

First Foundation of Trust – Reciprocity

Recognize that trust is always reciprocal; it goes in both directions.  If you want to see more trust, you must extend more trust to others. Many leaders forget to extend trust as a precursor. They always fail.

If you are a leader who is not satisfied with the level of trust in your group, ask yourself this question. How much trust am I extending to them?

Second Foundation of Trust – Values

Values are critical as they form the basis for trust to form. Many leaders have a set of great-sounding values, but they do not model them consistently.

Suppose you have a value that “People are our most important asset.” You need to demonstrate it when things are tight and you are considering laying people off.  I tell my students, “Values do you the most good when it is difficult or expensive to follow them.” That is when you show that you mean the values that you profess. People will pick up on any compromise or rationalization of the values, and it kills trust.

Third Foundation of Trust – Accountability

I have done a multitude of surveys on trust within organizations. In the majority of cases, accountability turns out to be a significant limiting factor. The reason is that most leaders view accountability as a punitive concept. They visualize catching people doing things wrong and making them feel bad about it. Accountability discussions are usually one-way, ugly, and hurtful.

I show leaders that if they change the concept from punitive to a principle-centered activity, it changes everything.  Make sure when having an accountability discussion you stress the following. The reason you are talking is that you really do care about the other person. You want him or her to be successful. Inconsistent performance gets in the way of their credibility, which ultimately limits their success.

Make sure you stress that you and the employee are on the same team. You are working to help each other be successful.  Consider that perhaps some of your actions or decisions are making it harder for the employee to perform well.

Fourth Foundation of Trust – Safety

Create a culture where employees feel it is safe to challenge a concept or action. They do not have to worry about some form of retribution. I call the concept “reinforcing candor.” 

The leader makes a special effort to make people glad when they bring up scary stuff. The leader listens with empathy and considers the input as valid in the other person’s view. Reinforcing candor is the most direct way to build a culture of higher trust.

I teach leaders to think of one thing first if someone challenges a statement.  The first priority is to make the person glad they brought it up. Once you establish a pattern of reinforcing candor, the whole atmosphere changes, and trust starts to grow spontaneously.  This is the secret sauce of building trust.


There are hundreds of actions leaders can take that can enhance trust.  They first must be grounded in the four foundations I have described in this article.  If they do that, then all the little actions will work quickly and effectively at building trust. Leaders must build the foundation first. If they do, all the other actions will enable trust rather than doubt or suspicion.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations

Leadership Barometer 174 Leadership Foundation

December 7, 2022

Just as every building needs a firm foundation, every organization needs a Leadership Foundation. No construction company would think of building any size building without first providing a suitable foundation.  If they eliminated that step, the building would not stand for long. 

Organizations need a Leadership Foundation

For an organization, it is imperative that the key leaders construct a leadership foundation so they can be successful. I will describe my interpretation of the elements of the foundation and tell why each one is critical. I will also provide some examples from personal experience.

The foundation for a building has many interrelated parts.  Likewise, a leadership foundation has different parts that must work together.

Start with values

The values provide the floor of the foundation. All activities and decisions must be consistent with the values, or they will damage the organization. The values must be owned by the entire organization. Make sure to have wide participation in creating the values.

I believe it is best to have a “handful” of values.  A long shopping list of nice things to have may look impressive, but it is hard for people to remember. For values to provide the proper centering, they must be in play at all times.

Aim for four to six strong values.  If they spell out an acronym, that is helpful for people.  For example, in my own organization, the values spell out the word “LIGHT.”  The words are Loyalty, Integrity, Generosity, Honesty, and Trust. Having an acronym that has meaning really helps with memory recall.

Leaders need to emphasize that “we always follow our values, especially when it is difficult or expensive.” That attitude is what gives the values their power. 

Add your purpose

The purpose tells everyone in the organization why they are doing the work. Purpose is often confused with mission.  These two concepts are different.  Here is a classic example to illustrate the difference.  For a quarry, the mission might be to cut rock into slabs.  The purpose could be to build a cathedral.

I used to work at Kodak. Our mission was to make photographic film, but our purpose was to help people preserve memories.

Solidify the mission

The mission statement tells everyone in the organization what we are trying to accomplish.  Keep the mission short and memorable for maximum effect. For example, the GE Mission statement of “We bring good things to life” is an excellent one.

Don’t include a lot of management jargon in the mission statement.  For example, here is an actual mission statement for a company. Can you guess what the company is?

To establish beneficial business relationships with diverse suppliers who share our commitment to customer service, quality and competitive pricing.

Finally, create a vision 

The vision tells everyone where we are going. This statement is the most powerful part of the foundation because it points people in the right direction. The vision is a positive statement of what we are trying to become. Many leaders think a vision statement should be achievable or people will become discouraged.  Personally, I believe an aspirational vision statement is stronger because it provides reach.

For example, the FedEx vision, “Absolutely positively overnight” is a strong vision statement. It is not possible to achieve 100% of the time due to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, or pandemics. That does not make it a weak vision statement.


Once you have those four elements, you have a solid platform and can start building walls with confidence. You can build your strategic plan based on this strong leadership foundation.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations

Always Go Back to Your Foundation

May 3, 2014

FoundationMost of us have values that we try to live by. We acquired our values very early in life, often before we can remember.

Usually values are passed on by parents, but there are other sources such as the church, school, or a close relative. Values usually remain with us throughout our lives, changing very little, if at all. Our experiences in life will color how we view the values, but they normally do not change.

In 2010, I heard an inspirational speech by the great Wintley Phipps. If you don’t recognize the name, you would recognize his golden baritone voice singing religious songs like “Amazing Grace.” Wintley gave the keynote address at the National Speakers Association Convention in Orlando Florida.

The title of his speech was “The HPLP Gene.” The whole hour was devoted to convincing us that we each have a Gene called “Helping People Live their Potential.”

He recounted numerous stories from his life where his “heroes” taught him great lessons and how those things became his foundation as he caught the HPLP Gene.

If you are interested in listening to this excellent speech, it is available for free on YouTube

His main point is that those people who pay it forward are living the life that God intended for us, and that behavior will provide us huge rewards in life. Even if nobody remembers us, “History will record that there lived a man, there lived a woman who had the Gene: The Helping People Live Their Potential Gene.”

One vivid story I recall was about a skyscraper in New York City. At one point the building developed a serious crack on the 42nd floor. They called for the Structural Engineer to come in and figure out what was causing this problem before serious damage was done.

When the building owner came in and went to the 42nd floor, he could not find the engineer. They told the owner, “Oh no – he is not here; he is down in the 6th basement.”

When the owner got to the 6th basement, he asked the engineer what he was doing down there because the problem was on the 42nd floor. The engineer told him, “The crack may be on the 42nd floor, but your problem is down here in the 6th basement.”

Apparently, one of the guards for the building wanted to build a garage but did not have the money for materials. So, every day before going home, he would go down to the 6th basement and chisel a brick out of the foundation to take home in his bag. After he had done this for several years, a crack appeared on the 42nd floor.

Wintley told the audience that when things are not working right in our lives, we should not be looking for the cause on the 42nd floor. “Go back to your foundation! Go back to the HPLP Gene and make sure you are helping people live their potential.”

Whether individuals or organizations, we need to heed the advice of Wintley Phipps. When things seem wrong in our lives, we need to go back to our foundation, back to our values, and make sure we are living up to the lessons we learned early in life.

Personally, I think the world would be a much better place if every individual actually wrote out his or her values and every organization did the same thing. Much more powerful than writing them, however, is to be absolutely fanatical about living those values every single day.

Making Values Have More Value

May 25, 2013

square dealA vital function of leadership is to instill a coherent set of values in the organization. Notice I did not say the function is to “articulate” good values. Too many leaders believe the job is done when there is a set of values hanging on the wall. Unfortunately, that attitude does more harm than good because any hypocrisy in living the values ends up undermining the whole concept.

Leaders need to exemplify the values and talk about them at every opportunity for them to become firmly planted into the hearts of the organization’s people. Here are some tips that can make your values shine and create a foundational bedrock for the work of your business.

Create the values together

Values do not come from one person. They are aggregated into being through a process of creation and selection. There are literally thousands of values one could choose. Words like integrity, loyalty, respect, trust, and flexibility are frequent choices. Less often used, but equally effective are words like honor, dependability, family, innovation, and transparency. It is important for people in the organization to participate in the crafting of a master brainstorm list and the voting on how to winnow the list to a vital few.

Don’t have too many values

To be most helpful, values must reside in the hearts of the population and be simple enough to remember. It is a mistake to have a dozen or more values for an organization. Few people will be able to remember the entire set. I recommend five values, or six at the most. These will form the core of why we do what we do. Then it is a simple matter of doing a pareto vote to cull out the less important candidates from the longer list.

Talk about the values

Make sure everyone knows the values by communicating them at every possible opportunity. Say things like, “We have decided to admit our mistake because one of our core values is transparency.” As people hear a value reinforced every time it is modeled by leaders in the organization, it becomes stronger and more useful to the business.

Reinforce people who point out inconsistencies

If an action or decision does not appear to be consistent with a stated value, it is important to encourage and reinforce employees who point out the apparent contradiction. If employees are stifled or punished when they voice concern over a possible lapse, then they will clam up, and the values will quickly lose their potency for the organization. If people are rewarded for bringing up concerns, then the values will spring to life and remain vibrant.

Allow infrequent changes

Values form a bedrock for the actions of a community. It is important that these statements of intent have stability, and yet it is a mistake to be totally rigid. If an additional value to the current list would help clarify some common activities, feel free to add a new value with great ceremony. Beyond some number, it is wise to retire a less relevant value when adding a new one. This can be tricky because no value is totally useless. If you retire a value, make sure to state it is still important, just less frequently called upon in the current environment.

Reinforce actions consistent with the values

The easiest way to perpetuate actions consistent with the values is to reinforce people when the follow them. A simple thank you is not sufficient reinforcement here. The conversation should sound more like this, “That was a great point Martha. When you recognized Ed for not backing down in the face of pressure from the angry employee, you demonstrated consistency, which is one of our key values.”

The magic in having values is teaching all people to model them every day, but that is only half of the job. You must make the connection between actions and values highly visible at every opportunity to ensure the values drive the right behaviors far into the future.

Maybe it’s Time for a New Foundation

March 16, 2013

FoundationWould you build a 30-room mansion on a foundation made for a small Colonial? Sometimes as organizations grow, they may no longer fit on the foundation that was perfect when they were a start up. An organization outgrowing its foundation is a frequent problem, and great leaders instinctively adjust the foundation for the size of the current business, ensuring a stable condition.

In my analogy, the foundation is the strategic plan for the organization. Every business needs an operating framework that includes the following things at a minimum: Values, Vision, Mission, Behaviors, SWOT, Goals, Strategies, Tactics, and Measures. Without these guiding premises for the business, it would be as useless and grotesque as a luxury cruise ship with no power or operational engine.

When organizations start out, they are often small groups of people who operate like a family. The procedures can be informal and communication is just raising one’s voice to be heard in the next cubicle. Customer focus is pretty easy, because everyone in the office can hear the phone conversation the service person is having with a customer in need. In this small business mentality, the foundation items mentioned above are easy to describe, but that does not mean they should be ignored. Some level of documentation of things like values and vision will help the young organization to survive the treacherous infant years and grow into adolescence.

In the subsequent paragraphs, I will use sales revenue as a surrogate for the size of an organization. That variable is one typical measure that is often used. Realize that there are many other factors that can require a change to an organization’s foundation. For example, a not for profit group may take on a new major activity. Another example is a volunteer organization deciding to change their model for meetings. Any fundamental change in conditions can create the need to re-examine the foundation documents.

When an organization reaches roughly $50M annual revenue, the old foundation no longer fits, because there is usually a new physical space, and communication has become much more complex as the size and staff of the entity grows. It is time to revisit and revise the strategic framework for the journey toward a larger organization. Trying to hang on to the operating rules that applied on starting up will be a formula that severely limits future growth.

Another significant shift occurs somewhere between $100M and $200M annual revenue. By that time, the organization is a fully operating business entity with all the advantages of size, but with all the complexities and bureaucratic pitfalls that beset a large organization. Once again, it is imperative when organizations go through this metamorphosis that the foundation be resized to work correctly. The operating realities of a large organization are vastly different from a mid-sized company, and the strategic framework must reflect these realities or the organization will suffer.

It is a best practice to review and modify an organization’s strategy about once a year to verify it is still configured correctly for the current business situation. Normally these reviews can be done quickly with emphasis only on what has changed since the last review. As the organization reaches certain milestones of size, however, it is time to take a deeper look and make a zero-based activity of the strategic review. This will allow the strategic plan foundation to match the current business reality.