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EDC51 Group | London, UK

Leadership development, organisational dynamics, team cohesion
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Leadership and Trust

Leadership skills are not learned but acquired. Maybe we should not even define them as skills. It’s a form of being, rather than doing. They are integrated not only on cognitive and behavioural level, but also emotionally, affectively, phenomenologically.

And when we consider trust and leadership, we can talk about two distinctly different levels of trust. Leadership will depend on what kind of trust is in place between the leader and the employee.

Leadership pull, which is a set of cognitive, behavioural, affective and phenomenological aspects of a leader that defines a particular leader, will also be defined by the kind of trust is in place between the leader and the team. Leadership pull determines the potency of a leader. It differentiates the formal leader from the psychological one. Leadership pull is predominantly defined on affective level, rather than cognitive or intellectual one.

We can learn and derive a lot from deeper levels of human psyche—also in relation to leadership and trust. The practice of psychotherapy, especially of relational approaches, and the theory surrounding it can teach us a lot of how trust manifests itself. And that also goes for situations at workplace, assessing teams and leaders and in coaching relationships.

One could argue that we see two significantly different levels of trust when it comes to leadership. The two being cognitive-behavioural trust and phenomenologically-affective trust. The sort of trust in place will define leadership pull and make a difference between psychological leader, which in fact is the “real” and actual leader, from the formal one.

When referring to trust as a general concept, we are essentially referring to phenomenologically-affective trust. Cognitive-behavioural trust is essentially confidence and belief in someone’s abilities to manage or handle a situation or to handle whatever situation they need to handle.

Trust is the essential basis for cohesiveness of a team. However, we need to be mindful that the trust we are referring to here is the phenomenologically-affective trust. Cognitive-behavioural trust does not have a cohesive element when it comes to team dynamics and is therefore not potent when it comes to leadership. Even though this goes beyond the topic of this article, it is worth pointing out.

Cognitive-behavioural trust

Cognitive-behavioural trust is the trust one has in another’s abilities, cognitive potential, performance potential etc. When we refer to leadership, this will usually relate to leader’s ability to do whatever is needed of them as a leader. So, talking about cognitive-behavioural trust, we are actually not referring to actual trust but rather confidence in one’s abilities and skills—confidence that someone is able to perform.

One can have cognitive-behavioural trust in another person when they are confident that they are up to the task. A team will have cognitive-behavioural trust in their leader when they are confident that their leader has the performance potential to manage the team, to solve problems and when the team thinks the leader is up to the needs and challenges of their job. However, that’s not leadership. Nor will it say anything about whether the team trusts the leader as a person.

Phenomenologically-affective trust

Phenomenologically-affective trust is actually the real, authentic trust between two individuals. This is the trust that we do not experience only cognitively—i.e. trusting someone will do or act in the way that they say they will or trusting that they are trustworthy. This is the trust that actually develops and manifests mainly on affective, emotional level.

Phenomenologically-affective trust is the trust that is irrespective of one’s abilities or skills and is actually based in one’s authenticity and the level of relational contact between two people. The emphasis there is on the relational contact! This kind of trust is based on the level of caring and acceptance by another person and by the authenticity of their relationship.

We know that people communicate on social and ulterior level. A person can say “Oh, you know you can trust me” but at the same time communicate a message of threat on an anterior level. True leadership is, therefore, also about getting to a place of congruence between the two levels of communication. And this is not something that can be learned cognitively but rather integrated on a deeper affective level.

If there is emotional and interpersonal distance between two individuals, phenomenologically-affective trust will not develop between them. That is if two individuals do not find contact on a psychological level, and only act on cognitive and behavioural one, real interpersonal trust will not develop.

I am sure we have all been in situations when we felt we just could not connect to the other person, when we felt distant and unsafe, but could not really find any rational explanation for it. This is the psychological contact that we are referring to when talking about phenomenologically-affective trust.

Phenomenologically-affective trust is communicated through individual’s authenticity. It’s about evoking feelings of safety in another. As humans we only trust another person if we feel safe doing so; if there is no feeling of threat or vulnerability. There is no trust where threat, fear and inauthenticity exist.

So, how does all we know about trust affect the efficacy of leadership? The type of leadership is directly determined by the type of trust it resides on. Cognitive-behavioural trust will never result in authentic leadership if phenomenologically-affective trust is not present.

One will only manage to become an authentic leader if their team trusts them on an affective level. Their leadership pull—their potency as a leader—will depend on the kind of trust they convey and whether they communicate congruently, whether they convey the feeling of safety.

There is obviously a huge leap between the two kinds of trust and this is the leap a leader needs to take to go from a formal leader to a psychological on—the real one.