Cultivating trust is a key leadership skill. But what happens when we lose trust? Specifically, when we make a mistake, a big one, and people lose trust in us?

Trust has never been more important. There is a crisis of trust in leadership. As we lurch from one Royal Commission to another, trust in public institutions and businesses is at an all time low. The Edelman Trust Barometer research from 34,000 respondents (February 2020) shows that Australians rank no institution as both competent and ethical, with the media and government scoring the worst on both scales. Corporate scandals like Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000 year old Aboriginal rock shelters (Khalil, September 2020) reinforce that leadership has a long way to go in the trust stakes.

Here are three ways leaders can work towards regaining trust.

Leadership principle: Trust is the practice of acting in good faith and living up to expectations

Accountability and atonement

When a wrong is committed, admitting it and apologising is the very least that can be done. Some breaches are beyond value, like the ancient Aboriginal rock shelters. Atonement and reparations show understanding and a desire to alleviate some suffering, even though some damage can never be undone.

Genuine humility and contrition

In cases where there is an imbalance of power, such as corporate giants and community stakeholders, leaders need to admit their failure of perspective and judgment.  Real humility and remorse shows potential for expanding awareness and willingness to learn.

Humility needs to be part of our leadership mindset

Compassionate curiosity

Leaders need to expand their circle of concern from shareholders to stakeholders and beyond. When leaders want to know what others think, how they feel, how they perceive issues, then the doorway opens to new conversations and insight. When we see more, we can lead better. Caring and honest interest invites others to share their point of view.

Trust is a gift given freely, and lost easily. It may never be regained. As leaders, it’s possible we may eventually regain trust, but that is up to those from whom we seek redemption. The only way we regain trust is to every day be worthy of that trust. Care, humility, and compassionate curiosity are the daily commitments of a trustworthy leader.


Related articles on leadership skills 

Leadership frameworks that cause evolution

One leadership skill you can’t do without

How to lead in a low trust environment



  • Zoë Routh

    Australia's Leadership Expert, Author of Book of the Year "People Stuff" l Speaker l Mentor l Strategist

    Zoë Routh is one of Australia’s leading experts on people stuff - the stuff that gets in our way of producing results, and the stuff that lights us up. She works with the growers, makers, builders to make people stuff fun and practical.

    Zoë is the author of four books: Composure - How centered leaders make the biggest impact,  Moments - Leadership when it matters most, Loyalty - Stop unwanted staff turnover, boost engagement, and build lifelong advocates, and People Stuff - Beyond Personalities: An advanced handbook for leadership. People Stuff was awarded Book of the Year 2020 by the Smart WFM Australian Business Book Awards.

    Zoë is also the producer of The Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast.