Connecting with People as People: How to Build Trust through Inclusive Leadership
Trust-based relationships are a cornerstone of effective teams—and inclusive leadership is the key to building trust with all your team members.
It’s well documented that managers are key to employee satisfaction, engagement, retention, and more. That means establishing strong relationships with employees is one of the most important things a manager can do, and strong relationships are built on trust.
When high trust exists between a manager and their employees:
- Work gets done better and (often) faster
- Employees are more satisfied and likely to stay
- Conflicts are more constructive and spark more innovation
After researching and working with thousands of managers, we've found that one of the best ways for a manager to build trust with their people is by focusing on leading inclusively.
But what does "inclusive leadership" actually look like?
Two Important Definitions
Let's start by defining the two key components of this discussion.
Trust has 3 components:
- Intent. What’s the reason or motive behind the relationship? As a manager, is your relationship founded on an intent to help your employee succeed?
- Credibility. Do you follow through on the commitments you make to your employees? Do they feel you’re honest with them?
- Empathy. Do you really know your employees as people? Do you often show you care about them?
Leading inclusively, at its core, is about valuing your employees as the humans they are. Inclusion means employees feel respected and appreciated for their unique contributions, as well as fully integrated into the informal networks within your organization.
Bringing those two definitions together, building trust through inclusive leadership is all about aligning intent, demonstrating credibility, and practicing empathy in ways that enable employees to feel respected, appreciated, and integrated into the fabric of the organization.
Unfortunately, the definitions are the easy part. The harder question is, what does this look like in practice? How can managers actually build trust through inclusive leadership?
To answer that, let’s look at the three elements of trust and see how inclusive leadership might be used to strengthen each one.
Intent & Credibility
Inclusive leadership helps us align intent and demonstrate credibility in ways that all our employees—not just some—find compelling and trustworthy.
Let me illustrate what I mean:
My husband believes strongly in the phrase, “actions speak louder than words.” He doesn’t place much value in words. If I tell him I care about him, some part of him doesn’t truly believe me. My words don’t speak to his soul. If I spend time with him, however, or do something I know is important to him, that’s what proves to him that I care.
I, on the other hand, value words. When we first got together, I tended to overlook many of the nice things my husband did for me. I’ve since had to learn to notice and appreciate his actions and reciprocate his kindness with actions of my own.
Think about how these inherent beliefs and values might translate to building trust—conveying intent and demonstrating credibility—in the workplace. As a manager, my natural instinct is to say (over and over) that I value my team, I appreciate each person’s contributions, and I support their goals.
How might those words come across to someone like my husband? As fluff.
Unless of course, I followed up my words with action.
If your style of management is similar to mine, perhaps consider these suggestions, in addition to encouraging or supporting your people through words::
- Intentionally asking for an employee’s input on topics or projects they have special knowledge on
- Opening your network and making tailored introductions to people who can help an employee progress in their career
- Praising (with specificity and regularity) team members’ work to those above me in the organization
Those are just a few ideas for additional ways to convey intent and build credibility. I’m sure you can come up with many more. Importantly, to build credibility no idea can be implemented as a one-off event. It has to be regularly and systematically built into the cadence of our interactions with our employees.
Empathy is about getting to know team members as people. Inclusive leadership is about practicing empathy in ways that work for those people.
Here’s another illustration from my own life:
I like thinking out loud and processing ideas externally—and my natural inclination is to assume everyone else does too. Years ago, one of the women on my team was a deep introvert. She hated being asked for her opinion without a heads-up, especially in public. It made her anxious and she never felt she was able to produce her best ideas.
I persisted for far too long, stuck in my own rut, putting her on the spot over and over again—intending to include her in the conversation but actually making her feel misunderstood and like an outsider.
Over time, this team member helped me understand what I really needed to do to be an inclusive leader for her. I started letting her know ahead of time what we’d be talking about so she could organize and even write down her thoughts ahead of time.
This employee also taught me how to “back off”, if you will. Rather than follow my regular habit of asking team members questions about their personal lives I created space for her. I started asking—with genuine interest—how she was doing. I let her guide the conversation from there. I didn’t ask probing follow-up questions, but I did make sure to give her my full attention. On occasion, I sat with her in silence for a while to give her space to talk if she wanted to.
Sometimes she did, which was great. Other times she didn’t, which was also great. Over time I got to know her well. We built a strong, trust-based relationship—to the point that after a while, she felt comfortable sitting me down and telling me if something bothered her about what I was doing as her manager (something I greatly appreciated).
Point being: Inclusive leadership doesn’t look the same for every person. To lead inclusively…
Questions to ask yourself to start leading more inclusively
So, what does inclusive leadership look like? What’s a leader to do? Here are 3 ideas:
Stay alert to the clues employees might be giving about how they’re experiencing a situation or relationship. Look especially for changes in established patterns. You might ask yourself:
- Has their performance changed?
- Have their communication habits changed?
- Are they talking more (or less) than usual?
- Are they more (or less) expressive than usual?
- Can you see any body language that might tell you something?
Acknowledge the assumptions we might be making about a situation and/or employee. We all tell ourselves stories about the world. We make assumptions (use heuristics) about how and why things work. It’s how adults get through the day. If we never made assumptions, we’d take forever simply deciding whether to get out of bed and what to wear!
Unfortunately, those assumptions can get us into trouble when we’re dealing with lots of different types of people. It’s too easy to assume that the way we experience the world is the way everyone around us does to, which simply isn’t the case. So it’s important to ask yourself:
- What assumptions am I making about this person and/or situation?
- What’s my natural instinct in this situation?
- What else might be true?
- How might this person be experiencing this situation?
- What might I be missing?
Simply holding open the possibility that something else is going on can powerfully pave the way for inclusion.
Ask questions to get to know an employee as a person, in ways that work for them. If they like to keep their work and private lives separate, honor that and focus on work-related questions. If they’re an introvert, try giving them a heads-up that you’re going to ask some questions to get to know them—maybe even send the questions ahead of time, or give them the option to respond in writing. If they’re an extrovert, see if they want to chat things through.
You might start by asking questions like:
- How do you get their best work done?
- When do you like to do deep work? When do you prefer to schedule meetings?
- How do they like to communicate?
- How do you like to receive feedback?
- What are the things that really matter to you?
Inclusive leadership within teams
As managers, inclusive leadership is about being hyperaware that people have different needs, challenges, views, and preferences—and creating the space for all those different views and preferences to thrive on our teams and in our organizations.
We must be careful, though, that in our efforts to include individuals and personalize our relationships with them, we don’t inadvertently create inequity—or send tacit messages that exclude rather than include.
For example, what messages might the following scenarios send to employees?
- You contact one employee after-hours more than the others on your team
- You send one employee to participate in a development opportunity but not the others on your team
- You recognize one employee publicly and one privately without verbalizing why
As with many things, awareness and intentionality are key to ensuring we’re equitably inclusive. Stay alert, acknowledge assumptions, and ask questions—of yourself and others.