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9 Ways to Build Trust with Your Boss

Executive Summary

If you want to build trust with your boss, it’s going to take more than just doing your job well—it’s going to take building a relationship.

  • In order to gain the trust of your leader, they have to know that you not only respect them, but that you’ll support and carry on their vision.
  • Not only can building a relationship with your boss enrich both of your lives, but the quality of that relationship may be the determining factor in the success or failure of your career.
  • Work hard to genuinely connect with those around you in your organization—whether they work above, alongside, or below you. If you want to lead well you have to be willing to take time to invest in others, especially the people you’re leading.

All good leadership is based on relationships. People won’t go along with you if they can’t get along with you. That’s true whether you are leading up, across, or down. The key to building trust with your boss is to develop a relationship with him. If you can learn to adapt to your boss’s personality while still being yourself and maintaining your integrity, you will be able to build trust and lead up.


I often teach leaders that it is their job to connect with the people they lead. In an ideal world, that’s the way it should be. The reality is that some leaders do little to connect with the people they lead. As a 360-Degree Leader, you must take it upon yourself to connect not only with the people you lead, but also with the person who leads you. If you want to lead up, you must take the responsibility to connect up.

It is possible to build trust with your boss. Here’s how to get started:

1. Listen to Your Leader’s Heartbeat

Just as a doctor listens to someone’s heartbeat to know that person’s physical condition, you need to listen to your leader’s heartbeat to understand what makes him or her tick. That may mean paying attention in informal settings, such as during hallway conversations, at lunch, or in the meeting that often occurs informally before or after a meeting. If you know your leader well and feel the relationship is solid, you may want to be more direct and ask questions about what really matters to him or her on an emotional level.

If you’re not sure what to look for, focus on these three areas:

  • What makes them laugh? These are the things that give a person great joy.
  • What makes them cry? This is what touches a person’s heart at a deep emotional level.
  • What makes them sing? These are the things that bring deep fulfillment.

All people have dreams, issues, or causes that connect with them. Those things are like the keys to their lives. Many leaders are very wary about letting the people who work for them see the keys to their heart because they feel it makes them vulnerable. So don’t approach it casually, and never treat the subject flippantly. To do so would be a violation of trust. And never try to “turn the key” manipulatively for personal gain.

2. Know Your Leader’s Priorities

The heartbeat of leaders is what they love to do. The priorities of leaders are what they have to do—and by that I mean more than just their to-do lists. All leaders have duties that they must complete or they will fail in fulfilling their responsibility. It’s the short list that your boss’s boss would say is do-or-die for that position. Make it your goal to learn what those priorities are. The better acquainted you are with those duties or objectives, the better you will understand and communicate with your leader.

3. Catch Your Leader’s Enthusiasm

It’s much easier to work with someone when you share an enthusiasm. When you and a friend are excited about something, such as a common hobby, don’t you often lose track of time when you’re engaged in it? You can spend hours talking about it and never grow tired. If you can catch your leader’s enthusiasm, it will have a similarly energizing effect. And it will create a bond between you and your leader. If you can share in that enthusiasm, you will pass it on because you will not be able to contain it.

A Minute with Maxwell: How to Build Trust

4. Support Your Leader’s Vision

When top leaders hear others articulate the vision they have cast for the organization, their hearts sing. It’s very rewarding. It represents a kind of tipping point, to use the words of author Malcolm Gladwell. It indicates a level of ownership by others in the organization that bodes well for the fulfillment of the vision. Leaders in the middle of the organization who are champions for the vision become elevated in the estimation of a top leader. They get it. They’re on board. And they have great value. Each time another person in the organization embraces the vision and passes it on, it’s like giving the vision “fresh legs.” In other words, when the vision gets handed off, the next person is able to run with it.

As a leader in the middle, if you are unsure about the vision of your leader, then talk to him. Ask questions. Once you think you understand it, quote it back to your leader in situations where it’s appropriate to make sure you’re in alignment. If you’ve got it right, you will be able to see it in your leader’s face. Then start passing it on to the people in your sphere of influence. It will be good for the organization, your people, your leader, and you. Promote your leader’s dreams, and he will promote you.

5. Connect with Your Leader’s Interests

One of the keys to building relational chemistry is knowing and connecting with the interests of your leader. Have you identified the pet projects that your leader really cares about at work? If so, that’s good, but how about her interests outside of work? Can you name them? It’s important to know enough about your leader to be able to relate to him as an individual beyond the job.

If your boss is a golfer, you may want to take up the game—or at least learn some things about it. If he collects rare books or porcelain, then spend some time on the Internet finding out about those hobbies. If she builds fine furniture on the weekends, then subscribe to a woodworking magazine. You don’t have to take up the hobby yourself or become an expert. Just learn enough to relate to your boss and talk intelligently about the subject.

Leaders sometimes feel isolated and find themselves wondering, Does anyone else understand? Though you may not be able to understand your leader’s work situation, you can at least understand him or her on some level. When leaders feeling isolated experience a genuine connection with someone “under” them, they often find it very rewarding. And if you feel isolated in the middle, that connection just might be rewarding for you too.

6. Understand Your Leader’s Personality

Two staff members were discussing the president of their company, and one of them said, “You know, you can’t help liking the guy.” To which the other replied, “Yeah, if you don’t, he fires you.” Leaders are used to having others accommodate their personalities. As you lead down from the middle of the organization, don’t you expect others to conform to your personality? I don’t mean that in an unreasonable or spiteful way—not that you would fire someone who didn’t like you, as in the joke.

If you are simply being yourself, you expect the people who work for you to work with you. But when you are trying to lead up, you are the one who must conform to your leader’s personality. It’s a rare great leader who conforms down to the people who work for him. It’s wise to understand your leader’s style and how your personality type interacts with his. If you study some of the materials designed to reveal personality, such as DISC, Myers-Briggs, and Littuaer’s Personality Plus, you will gain greater insight into the way your leader thinks and works.

7. Earn Your Leader’s Trust

When you take time to invest in relational chemistry with your leader, the eventual result will be trust—in other words, relational currency. For years I’ve taught the concept of relational “change in your pocket.” When you do things that add to the relationship, you build trust and increase the change in your pocket. When you do negative things, you spend that change. If you keep dropping the ball—professionally or personally— you harm the relationship, and you can eventually spend all the change and bankrupt the relationship.

People with a lot of history who have invested in relational chemistry build up a lot of change. As a result, the relationship can weather many problems or mistakes. Andy Stanley, who is a fantastic 360-Degree Leader, said, “Loyalty publicly results in leverage privately.” If you build trust with your boss over time by giving him public support, then you will gain change with him privately. And you will have opportunities to lead up.

8. Learn to Work with Your Leader’s Weaknesses

Sales expert and author Les Giblin said, “You can’t make the other fellow feel important in your presence if you secretly feel that he is a nobody.” Likewise, you can’t build trust with your boss if you secretly disrespect him because of his weaknesses. Since everybody has blind spots and weak areas, why not learn to work with them? Try to focus on the positives, and work around the negatives. To do anything else will only hurt you.

9. Respect Your Leader’s Family

I’m almost reluctant to introduce the concept of family in the context of leading up with someone at work, but I think it bears mentioning. If you do all of the other things I have recommended, but your boss’s spouse doesn’t like or trust you, the relationship between the two of you will always be strained. You, of course, have no real control over this. The best you can do is to be kind and respectful to your boss’s family members and try to connect with them in an appropriate way. Just be aware that if you sense key members of your boss’s family don’t like you, even though it may be through no fault of your own, it may lessen your influence and maybe even hinder your career.

The thesis of Winning with People is that people can usually trace their successes and failures to the relationships in their lives. The same is true when it comes to leadership. The quality of the relationship you have with your leader will impact your success or failure. If you want to build trust with your boss, then your relationship is certainly worth investing in.

John Maxwell

John C. Maxwell is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker who has sold more than 31 million books in fifty languages. He has been identified as the #1 leader in business by the American Management Association® and the most influential leadership expert in the world by Business Insider and Inc. magazine. He is the founder of The John Maxwell Company, The John Maxwell Team, EQUIP, and the John Maxwell Leadership Foundation, organizations that have trained millions of leaders from every country of the world.

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