Trust Cannot Be Surged (or 5 Ways to Earn Trust)

By Kevin on December 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

A close friend of mine recently participated in a war game that was run by the US Naval War College. It brought together multiple military and civilian organizations as well as international partners, with the goal to help participants learn and better prepare for a crisis in coastal waterways.

But the goal within the goal was to strengthen relationships among the several different groups. As Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris mentioned in an article about that war game:

As we all know, trust cannot be surged.

That line really hit me. As I wrote in my leadership book, We, trust is at the foundation of leadership. In fact, trust is one of the top three drivers of engagement (growth and recognition being the other two). As the Admiral so rightly points out, you can’t just flip the trust switch on. You can’t demand it. You can’t fix a trust problem with money. Trust must be earned, and it must be renewed over time.

Five Ways to Earn Trust

While we can’t “surge trust” here are 5 ways you can jumpstart your trust gaining efforts on your team.

1) Go to them. Early in my career I heard a story about how Al Gore, when he first got to the US Senate, went to all the offices of the other senators to introduce himself. It was a personal touch that won him many new friends that helped to advance his political career. When Kenexa bought my small company in the late 1990’s, I applied that lesson by flying all over the country to meet the other managing partners in the firm. Many were surprised when a month later, as a 30-year old company newcomer, was voted onto the executive committee (beating out many tenured senior partners). When it comes to trust, small gestures count. Taking the time to travel to someone else’s office shows respect and it will be returned.

2) Spend time face-to-face. Ahhh, it’s so easy to direct message someone on Twitter, dash off a short email, or maybe do a quick mobile call on the way home. But what build trust is face-to-face communication. This doesn’t mean all communication needs to be in person, it just means sometimes it’s worth the effort to fly-in for an important meeting, to “break bread” over lunch, or even to chat in person in a conference room. Having communal coffee—or some equivalent—has a magic to it. Maybe it’s because of the addition of body language. Maybe it’s because, when face-to-face, we take the time to ask each other about families, we laugh, we let our guard down. Regardless, realize that face-to-face time isn’t inefficient, it’s trust building.

3) Keep your commitments, big and small. Tell us something we don’t know, you might be scoffing. But it’s incredible how rare keeping commitments truly are. The power is in realizing that all commitments count. Do you show up to meetings on time? Do you actually do the tasks you’ve promised others? Do you come through with promises related to compensation and benefits? And if you break a commitment, make sure to acknowledge the mistake. People will generally immediately forgive, but only if they know you are aware of your behavior and have made amends.

4) Identify common context. My friend, Ian, builds relationships better than anyone I know. I’ve seen him in a variety of settings—from working exhibition booths, to warming a bar stool—and inevitably he asks all the people he meets two questions. “Where you from?” and “Where did you go to school?” He instantly looks for common ground, based on geography. You don’t have to copy Ian’s exact question, but it’s worthwhile to look for common ground. It might indeed be from where you grew up, or perhaps which company or department you spent time in, which reality TV shows you both watch, your favorite sports teams, a passion for mountain bikings, whatever. The key is to establish some mutual interests and experiences.

5) Be vulnerable. Although you can’t “surge” trust, being vulnerable with another person is the quickest way to expedite the process. If you share what you are struggling with—if you share your doubts, if you share your challenge for the year ahead, if you share how you’ve made mistakes in the past—people will almost instantly trust you. You are offering up instant transparency and vulnerability and you are trusting them with the information. You can’t fake this. People will sniff out duplicity a mile away. But if you sincerely share, you’ll be surprised at how quickly they’ll share back, and begin a trusting relationship.

Whether in an actual battlefield, or the in the battle of business, be ever mindful that trust is the foundation for leadership success. You can surge equipment, people, and even ideas—but you can’t surge trust. It must be built, and it must be maintained, over time.


Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author and keynote speaker. Get more success and tips from his newsletter at and check out keynote video clips. His new book, Employee Engagement 2.0, teaches managers how to turn apathetic groups into emotionally committed teams.

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