Foundation for Building a High-Performance Team: Respect, Trust, and Loyalty (Part 1)

Respect, trust, and loyalty are some of the most powerful words in the lexicon of leadership and team management. Quite often, these words are thrown around loosely without context or thoughtful consideration for the people involved. As I’ve experienced and will explain, the meanings and implications of these words tend to change with the people, the situation, and the culture in which we operate. As a way to strengthening your leadership skills, being aware of the norms around these words can allow you to build stronger teams.

Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Very often, when a leader takes a new role, the team comes built-in with the job and the leader starts the journey of bringing the team along with a new mission and vision. It would be wonderful if all the team members were loyal to the leader on day one and, of course, were trustworthy and respectful to each other at the same time. Unfortunately, it seldom works that way. The leader needs to start building trust through respect, which ultimately creates loyalty.

In my most recent leadership roles, I was thrust into a situation where I had to lead a highly diverse team spread across many countries – each with unique cultures. It felt challenging in that I started the job without an onboarding process, leading a team that had previously being led by several leaders in a short time frame. With advice from my mentors, I started the journey of building a high-performance team by creating a culture of respect, gaining members’ trust by working along with them, and finally, building followership (loyalty) toward a shared purpose. The result was spectacular as the team achieved and exceeded the commitments made to the business and the local community.

Earning Respect

Although respect looks and feels different for different people, in general, it is about admiring or giving special attention to a person or something. For instance, a person in power may feel disrespected if someone questions his or her ideas, yet, if considering generational differences, a Millennial leader[1] may want that person to challenge her so that she feels engaged and heard. In certain cultures, following orders from a supervisor without pushing back is a form of respect, and anything short of it is considered treason. Being aware of the norm for the organization and its culture becomes an important first step for a new team leader.

The basics always matter and active listening is one basic. Respect people when they speak by allowing them to complete what they are saying, and give weight to their ideas. Acknowledge any differences respectfully but be transparent about where you are coming from. Appreciate the local culture and norms, including that of your organization, because that is important to building a mutually respectful team.

In a blog post in the Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Deal[2] makes the point that when it comes to respect—or disrespect — “what you tolerate, you promote.” As leaders, you set the trend and the boundaries of a respectful culture.

To make that more personal, in meetings with my leadership teams, I would set boundaries by saying, “Within the family, it is okay to throw food at each other occasionally, but you are not allowed to throw knives and forks.” It set expectations and the tone lightened the mood creating a healthy and productive culture that encouraged open debate and welcomed diversity of thoughts whilst still maintaining a professional environment.

Gaining Trust

Trust is an unwavering bond between individuals where one believes in the other without any prejudgment. As Jon Mertz says in one of his articles, “To gain trust, we must be believable so that others will have confidence in our ability to keep our word, do our part, and follow through on expectations set.”

Gaining trust starts with small steps and it is cumulative: the more you do it, the more you make deposits into the trust account. Trust is built on a foundation of honesty and transparent communication. If you lack either one of those, it will start eroding the trust factor in your relationship with others. Finally, trust is about consistently delivering what you say you are going to deliver.

John Blakey (, founder of the Trusted Executive Foundation, is a prolific author and thought leader on this subject. He talks about trustworthiness having three components: ability (coach, deliver, be consistent); integrity (be honest, be open, be humble); and benevolence (be kind, be brave, evangelize). He further makes the point that although people can deliver on promises day in and day out, if they are dishonest or cruel, others are unlikely to trust them.

The fastest way for leaders to build trust within their team is to roll up their sleeves, get into the trenches with their team members, and help them accomplish their goals. Leaders’ actions then get amplified; making promises and acting on them helps significantly improve the trust quotient. However, failing to do so bankrupts their trust account.

Returning Loyalty

Loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance to an individual or an organization. Loyalty is the result of a respectful relationship built on trust over a period of time. As a team leader, avoid encouraging blind loyalty from individuals because it may lead to mediocracy trap, which would be hard to unwind later. It further leads to a bad working environment and does not motivate other team members to give their best.

One cannot buy loyalty, but one can buy a dog that will be loyal. In the political world, loyalty is considered an entry ticket to a job; in the business world, loyalty is earned over time.

Don’t be in haste and question someone’s loyalty without clearly understanding the context of his or her words or actions, because it will take twice as much effort to rebuild the level of trust that was established. Finally, don’t expect true loyalty to occur in the early stages of a relationship; it takes time to build respect and establish trust before seeking loyalty.

How Do You Know It When You See It?

How often do you attend meetings where one person speaks the majority of the time and other people just take notes, make some cursory comments, and leave the meeting without any actions or follow-up? This shows a broken system where respect, trust, and loyalty exist on a superficial plane.

When leaders create an environment where issues are vigorously debated and diverse views are respectfully heard, you see a team atmosphere of mutual respect. When people are not branded for their views or politically castrated for pointing out obvious things, their leaders are building a trusting team. When people complete the process of grinding through the issues in a setting where their views have been given a hearing, the leader makes the final decision and the team follows through on the actions because that leader has earned the loyalty of the team. It is the leader who sets the trend in earning respect and gaining trust, and if it’s done thoughtfully, honestly, and consistently, that person will earn a loyal followership and team members will go to any length to achieve the vision.

The Bottom Line

Respect is earned. Honesty is appreciated. Trust is gained. Loyalty is returned. —Anonymous