My family and I like to cook and we tend to be “selective” about our ingredients. We frequent farm stands for produce and we tend to get our meats and cheeses at Whole Foods. Our friends often ask us how we can shop at “Whole Wallet.” Our reasons have to do with how the food is sourced and the standards they maintain: no artificial preservatives, no hydrogenated fats, hormone-free meat and so on.

For some of our friends, shopping at Whole Foods borders on a religion because they identify so strongly with the company values such as the commitment to conscious capitalism, team-based hiring practices, and activism around sustainable food. They trust and feel a sense of connection to Whole Foods because it mirrors their own values.

Both of us trust the company, but we trust it for different reasons. My fervent friends are trusting on the basis of relational trust, because they feel a deep personal connection. My family and I trust it on the basis of transactional trust, because we believe the company reduces the risk that we will eat things we don’t want to be eating.

This represents a great illustration of the complexity of trust – it is not necessarily the same as being loved and admired, and understanding the nuances are important to building trust with your team and your organization.

Setting the context: defining trust

Trust comes in the two forms I referenced above: relational trust and transactional trust. Relational trust involves a strong sense of connection or relationship with the other person. We pick up cues in an interaction, such as transparency or a sense of kindred experience, and consider someone trustworthy. We experience someone as having qualities that we value and this affects the overall assumptions we make regarding that person. Transactional trust involves a willingness to put ourselves at risk, based on another person’s actions. We base our decision on transactional trust around three things: our past experience with the individual; our perceptions of their expertise or capabilities; and our sense of shared purpose or goals

(To learn more about building both types of trust, read the Trust Equation.)

You don’t have to be loved to be trusted

We find that leaders sometimes confuse the need to be loved with the ability to build trust to inspire others. In reality, if you want to build the kind of trust that enables you to create followership and deliver change and impact, you are better off opting for trust than love.

Take the relationship many of us have with Google (now Alphabet). We trust the company with our files, our email, our photos, to keep that all safe. But how many people feel a strong sense of connection to the founders or the CEO? Not many. We trust them but we don’t necessarily feel any connection to them.  And take Amazon’s leader Jeff Bezos.  We may feel no connection at all to who he is, or his values, or his likeability, but we have deep trust in Amazon’s ability to deliver things fast, cheaply and conveniently, based on their performance. And that is a good thing for a leader and a business that wants to grow and thrive.

Building the right kind of trust

To be loved or admired is a matter of wooing or courting the other person to try to sway them emotionally. There are lots of ways leaders can do that: by being authentic, by sharing of yourself, by acts of generosity. These are in themselves good things, but they don’t necessarily translate into someone trusting you and they can be ephemeral. On the other hand, when you have transactional trust, you can have an interpersonal disagreement with someone, but they still know they can rely on you because of past experience and confidence in your shared values. From a team leadership point of view, it is far more important that team members trust each other than like each other. If the relationships are only based on affection or good feeling, it’s hard to come together and work though the kinds of constructive conflict required for teams to move the needle on business performance.

This is not to say good leaders don’t want relationships and are indifferent to their teams and colleagues. The holy grail of trust is to have both relational and transactional, but if you have to build one or the other, a leader should opt for transactional trust. If you seek to have an impact and get things done – especially in a new environment where no one knows you – focus on demonstrating that you are trustworthy, capable and competent, and can add value. That is more important to your driving forward your strategic agenda than making sure that people like you.

Our research with over 1300 leaders demonstrates how important this is: we found that highly-trusted leaders outperformed untrusted leaders in 86 of the 90 behaviors on our Executive Presence Index (ExPItm). These behaviors are ones we have determined scientifically make up a leader's overall presence and level of influence, and trust is clearly a differentiator.

Operationalizing transactional trust

As a leader thinking about putting the concept of transactional trust into operation in connecting with your team and with colleagues, consider these tips:

Understand the risk factors from the other person’s point of view. The key is to think about the interaction you will have from the other person’s point of view using “180 thinking.” Use something like our Audience Agenda System that helps you make your case based on what matters most to the other person. Think about what is at risk for the other person – what are they interested in, concerned about, and what do they need to have their concerns assuaged, rather than how to get them to like you.
Communicate the key behaviors. As you think about your interactions, consider that others will be judging how you show that:
  • You are predictable and reliable
  • You have the capability
  • Your motives are aligned

None of these require someone to like you but they would trust you the same way they would trust a surgeon to operate: it’s unnecessary to like them, or feel any connection, as long as you trust them to do the job.

Leverage the opportunity to accelerate the cycle time on trust. It doesn’t necessarily take longer to demonstrate transactional trust versus relational trust. In fact, once they understand what drives it, most leaders can build transactional trust – across all 3 dimensions – much faster, and without going near relational trust. One CEO we worked with was getting ready for a high stakes strategy offsite facilitation with her senior team, and was nervous about our approach and the fact that she hadn’t worked with us before. On the spot, on site, with 30 minutes to go, she asked her mentor – another high profile CEO brought in to be skeptical – to vet us and what we were planning. We took 15 minutes to walk him through our experience, our capability and our understanding of the CEO and her leadership team’s needs. He turned to her, gave us the thumbs up and joined in the action himself.

When it comes down to it, it’s all about finding common ground to collaborate and win – focus on reducing the risk for others and solving their problems, and you are on the road to trust.

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