Put the Pen Down: 5 Steps to Building Trust


I have the privilege and honor to spend time with leaders from all walks of life and I’ve noticed a dangerous trend in new leaders or leaders that are trying to move faster than their team.  I’ve watched as they disguise brainstorming sessions at the whiteboard as a chance to make their points known while providing little to no actual collaboration or brainstorming.  They stand with pen in hand and serve to lecture their team on the merits of their thinking.  Justifying their ideas and the direction they are headed as “they” solve the problem and map out the future.  It always reminds me of Simon Sinek’s point when he says “It is a mistake when a leader walks into a room and says, “We have a problem and I think this is how we should solve it.  What do you think?”  The leader has squelched the feedback from the team at that moment and is not likely to receive the honest input needed to solve the problem.  It could be worse than that.  They have started on a path to eroding trust.

No leader wants to breakdown trust within their team.  In fact, “Trust” and “Integrity” are probably written somewhere in the organization’s value statement.  But it can happen quickly and result in this unintended consequence.

So, how do you build trust in these moments?

Good leaders hire great people, equip them for the role, empower them to have influence and then take one step back.  Allow them to have influence.  After all, that’s what ignites their engagement and creativity?  They draw satisfaction from having a real impact on an organization.  Build that.  Stoke that fire.  Unleash the team’s diversity, intellect, and experience to do more than a single person with a good idea. 

Here’s how:

1.    Put the pen down – Hand somebody else the whiteboard marker and allow them to lead the discussion.  It will give you a better vantage point as you see ideas coming together.  You will find your questions and contributions become far more insightful.


2.    Speak last – Find pleasure in taking in the conversation.  Let the conversation fully develop before you jump in with questions or comments of your own.  This will give your team the understanding they are in control of the discussion.  It will also fuel your creativity as you begin to bring ideas together.


3.    Ask questions that challenge and advances the discussion – Be careful not to dismiss ideas, but to challenge thoughts with questions that ask them to dig deeper.  This will develop ideas past the shallow point of inception and into the deep waters of a fully thought out plan.  After all, no idea should be labeled a “good idea” until it has been challenged.


4.    Affirm ideas and the dialogue – Always affirming and forward moving.  Bad ideas will come out in the wash.  They do not need to be shot down.  You want to make sure you are creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel comfortable to share.


5.    Focus on meeting the team’s needs – A major part of a leader’s role is to remove barriers to their team’s success.  Focus on what the team needs from you in order to be successful.  Sometimes it is idea generation.  Other times it may be helping them navigate political environments or budgetary issues.  The key is to be open to serving your team and not them serving you.

Leaders, your idea might be the best idea.  Perhaps it is 10 percent better than any other idea presented (this time). You must ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”  Will you have marginalized or silenced the team?  Group dynamics theory speaks to creating a psychologically safe environment, where team members feel free to offer ideas.  This safety creates a comfortable exchange of ideas that may or may not make a difference in the decision, but it makes all the difference in your organizational culture.

Trust is critical and your team needs to know you value their contribution.  Focus on the five steps listed here and watch the energy level change.