Leadership Communication and the Trust Filter

Leadership-CommunicationNo matter how clear you think you are as a leader, people don’t always perceive you the way you intend to be perceived. Effective leadership communication requires leaders to manage perceptions by understanding the lenses through which they are viewed. And the trust filter is one of the first and most important you should be aware of.

Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson explains this well in No One Understands You and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). We view others through three lenses or filters:

  • Trust
  • Power
  • Ego

When you speak or act, perceivers ask themselves:

  • How much trust should I grant?
  • What is the power differential here?
  • How much of an ego threat or self-esteem boost will I experience?

Studies show that employees ask themselves two questions when assessing their leaders:

  1. Do you have good intentions toward me (friend or foe)?
  2. Do you have what it takes to act on these intentions?

The Trust Filter

The first thing people do when listening to you is determine whether to trust you. This decision is made almost entirely unconsciously.

Leaders can build trust in many ways:

  • Project Warmth and Competence. This is perhaps the most important component of gaining others’ trust. How well do you communicate friendliness, loyalty and empathy? Do you come across as intelligent, skillful and effective? According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, perceptions of warmth and competence account for 90 percent of the variability in whether others perceive you positively or negatively.
  • Trust Them First. We are naturally inclined to reciprocate favors and extend trust to someone who has trusted us first.
  • Pay Attention. Leaders who make eye contact, smile, nod, recognize individuals by name and really listen are the ones who excel at communicating. While this may seem obvious, too many executives appear hurried and oblivious to others.
  • Share Your Stories. When you share past experiences (especially your mistakes), you become vulnerable, thereby extending trust to listeners. This helps build high-quality relationships.
  • Walk Your Talk. People need to see you make good on your promises and carry out your stated intentions. Actions speak louder than words. Overconfidence is a trap for leaders, who must learn to project a realistic sense of themselves. Great leaders show modesty, yet remain confident in their words and deeds.

If there’s a huge gap between your intended message and how others hear it, you’ll need to closely examine your communication style and substance. Consider working with a trusted mentor or professional coach to analyze how you come across to others.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your experiences. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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