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These are the personality traits you need to lead with trust

Authority can be a paradox because the very behaviors that lead people to trust you with power are not the traits they prefer in leaders.

These are the personality traits you need to lead with trust
[Source image: Olemedia/iStock]
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When researching this book, one senior executive told us, “The fair decisions are easy. My job is to make the difficult decisions.”

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And because leaders have the responsibility of making those difficult decisions, leaders earn trust differently than organizations. Followers want first to know that a leader has earned her power legitimately, and second that she will use it well because she has the power to make decisions that will impact their careers and lives. They rely on their leader to make these difficult decisions with compassion and fairness.

The American philosopher John Rawls divided earning trust into two stages. First, there is “originating consent” where a leader first earns the trust of followers by acquiring power legitimately. Then there is what he calls “joining consent,” the fact that people continuously assess whether they want to keep trusting a leader.

In the first stage of trust, originating consent, followers want to know that leaders acquired their role through the right process, fairly carried out. In other words, how, exactly, did a leader come into their role and get the power that comes with it? In corporations, the decision-making process isn’t public knowledge: boards of directors appoint CEOs, and we allow them to lead our organizations. Earning trust, however, does not end with originating consent. It’s a status that is always being reassessed through joining consent; that is, trust needs to be earned over and over.

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Leaders face an uphill battle when it comes to joining consent because it turns out that the very qualities that cause you to earn people’s trust in the first place are easily destroyed by acquiring power. Power is a paradox because the very behaviors that lead others to trust you with a position of power can be horribly transformed into behaviors that are the opposite of what people want in a leader.

For instance, leaders often gain their power because of their willingness to listen to others, but once attaining it, they frequently downplay or even refuse to listen to dissenting voices. That is because being in a position of power affects both the way you see yourself and how others see you and the way you act. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at University of California–Berkeley, has studied power for decades. In his book, The Power Paradox, he describes his research.

Let’s start with Keltner’s description of the behaviors that lead others to trust you with a position of power. In this view, the road to earning and maintaining power and ultimately trust is paved by actions that show care for others. They “give power to those who advance the greater good, construct reputations that determine the capacity to influence, reward those who advance the greater good with status and esteem and punish those who undermine the greater good with gossip.” Leaders demonstrate empathy, they give to others, and they show gratitude.

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Keltner and some colleagues wanted to understand why some people rise to power in a group while others don’t. To get at this question, he designed a natural state experiment that would allow him to interact with participants at home (instead of in a lab). He got permission to study the students who lived together in one hall in a first-year dormitory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

At the beginning of the year, he met students and asked them to rate the amount of influence of each person in the hall. Students also completed a questionnaire that asked them to assess the extent to which their own personalities were defined by five social tendencies: kindness, enthusiasm, focus on shared goals, calmness, and openness (“being open to others’ ideas and feelings”). He came back at the middle of the academic year, and then at the end, asking students each time to rate the power held by each of their dorm mates.

Keltner tallied the power ratings given to each student. He found that as early as two weeks into the year, some students already had more perceived power than others. As for the big question: What was it about those who rose to power? The strongest predictor of which dorm dwellers rose to the top within the first week of arriving at college was enthusiasm, which Keltner defined as “reaching out to others.”

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The Power of Trust by Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta

Researchers replicated these results across seventy other studies, finding that all the people who rose to power had all of the Big Five personality traits. There is overwhelming evidence that if you want to get power, you need to be someone who values others, who cares about the greater good, and who can help a group succeed.

As we mentioned, however, power is a paradox. Keltner goes on to describe how the actions that lead someone to power can disappear under the neurological and psychological effects that wielding power can have on individuals. Keltner calls power a “dopamine high.”

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure, and it is released in our brains when we expect a reward. Keltner found that when people feel powerful, they have higher levels of excitement and positive feelings, which lead to more action. Power also makes people more aware of the rewards associated with a course of action. However, these power surges and dopamine highs also make them less aware of the risks associated with an action.

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What this comes down to is that as a leader at any level in an organization, or even in your personal life, you must be prepared for the internal battle that awaits. On one side is the focus on others and the good of the group—the actions and beliefs that enable people to gain power and the respect and admiration of others. And on the other side, the well-documented finding that being in a leadership role will pull you toward a focus on yourself and replace attention to others with an inability to care, understand, or even be curious about the conditions of other people or groups, except those who serve your interests.


This excerpt is adapted from The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It by Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Sandra J. Sucher is a recognized trust researcher and professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.

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Shalene Gupta is a research associate at Harvard Business School. Before joining Harvard, she covered the intersection of diversity and tech at Fortune.