Trust Trumps Loyalty On Leadership Teams

trustRecently I had an intense discussion with a senior executive client about loyalty and trust in relation to his executive team. His premise is that he wants his leadership team to be loyal to him or as he puts it ‘they have to have my back and I have to have theirs.’ He argued that while it is ideal for an executive team to be able to discuss issues and challenges openly and without judgment, it is more important for teams to speak with one voice and to have each others’ backs. As I reflected on our discussion a couple of interesting questions came to mind: (1) Are loyalty and trust the same? and (2) Can executive teams be effective without trust?

Loyalty and Trust Defined

Our view is that loyalty and trust are not the same. Loyalty as defined by Webster is ‘a feeling of strong support for someone or something’ whereas trust is defined as ‘a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship.’ A couple of examples illustrate our position. When I was assigned to my first Army platoon I was loyal to my company commander but I didn’t really trust him. I assumed that he was good at his job and I knew that for me to be effective at my job I would have to provide him with my full support. However, it took time for me to truly trust him (and I am sure for him to trust me) because at first he really wasn’t interested in my ideas or my challenges to his ideas. As we gained respect for each other’s capabilities, intentions, and differing perspectives my support was based much more on trust than on his position authority. Another stark example of the difference between loyalty and trust is highlighted in a great book I just read about ancient Japan called Shogun. In the book the Samurai’s are completely loyal to their lords for fear of death but they certainly weren’t always convinced that their lords were well-intentioned.

“it is up to the senior team leader to put the foundational elements in place so that trust can exist.”

Can Executive Teams be Effective without Trust?

As illustrated by the two examples above, there is no doubt that executive teams can be effective without trust but we are skeptical about the sustainability of their effectiveness. Loyalty based on position in the hierarchy is certainly important and helps teams (and organizations) maintain a sense of order and discipline. In our opinion this should be the baseline or minimum expectation that executives should have for the team. That being said, for a team to fulfill its potential and create value above and beyond what individual members bring to the table, leaders have to create and team members need foster a strong environment of trust; trust between the members and the leader and trust among the team members. The following are a few questions that we typically ask executives to get a sense for the level of trust within their teams…

  • “Can teammates challenge or disagree with the leader and each other openly?”
  • “Is the leader accountable to the team and are team members accountable to each other?”
  • “Are important and/or controversial issues tackled directly and openly?”
  • “Do team members feel comfortable admitting when they makes mistakes?” “What about the leader?”
  • “Do team members believe that the leader and their colleagues support them outside the team environment?”

Fostering Trust

In our opinion, it is up to the senior team leader to put the foundational elements in place so that trust can exist. It starts with humility – leaders who are confident in their capabilities are not afraid to acknowledge their shortcomings and this promotes an atmosphere where team members can do the same. Next is open dialogue – leaders who encourage one-on-one and team debate and who are receptive to challenge and feedback will tap into the full potential of their teams and mitigate the risk of stifled-silence. Accountability is essential for trust to exist – leaders who are accountable to their teams are much more likely to foster an environment where individuals are passionate about delivering on the commitments they make to their teammates. Finally, leaders who view mistakes as opportunities to learn and develop engender commitment and promote an environment where team members can debate, discuss and learn from each other.

In short, we believe that it is important to build loyalty within the executive team but for teams to take advantage of the unique contributions of every team member and fire on all cylinders the leader has to create an environment where trust (‘a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship’) can thrive.