Seven Reasons Your Reports Don't Trust You

When employees don’t trust leadership, organizations pay the price in low engagement, high turnover, and lost creativity and innovation.

Still, according to a recent survey by BlessingWhite, slightly more than half (52 percent) of employees say that they trust their company’s top leaders.

After studying issues of trust in the workplace for some 20 years, we are certain of one thing: Most leaders think a breach of trust must be severe or even scandalous—consider Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.—to take a costly toll on the business. To those leaders we say: “Think again.”

According to our research, little breaches of trust over time are a big deal. Ultimately, employees pull back, withholding their full energy and talent. Leadership, too often oblivious, wonders why. For both individuals and organizations, it’s like death by a thousand paper cuts.

So what are the not-so-little reasons your people might not trust you? Here are seven common ones—and how to steer clear of committing these everyday sins.

1. You withhold trust in others. Trust is a two-way street. If you want people to trust you, you need to trust them. For starters, avoid micromanaging. Instead, give employees the latitude to put their full talents to work. When you let go and trust in people’s competence, they feel confident and committed. They want to give their best. Conversely, when you hold the reins too tight, they recoil, feeling devalued and distrusted. Just as trust begets trust, distrust begets distrust.

2. You ask much, yet fail to acknowledge effort. Odds are that you’re asking workers to do more with less these days. You also need them to take the initiative and tackle, in the words of authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “big, hairy, audacious goals.” Yet when employees step up and deliver, how do you respond? Do you take a moment to personally acknowledge effort and reiterate why their work really matters to the business? Or do you just say “Thanks” in a perfunctory e-mail and move on to the next request? For people to trust you, they need to know that you care about them. A little acknowledgment can go a long way.

3. You behave badly. At a client site recently, we witnessed a tirade from a global marketing executive—a leader notorious for his nasty temper. Later, his team members confided that they had come to expect such fist-pounding and profanity. No one felt safe from being singled out and screamed at in front of everyone. “We’ve all been humiliated by him,” said one vice-president. If you want your own team to trust and respect you, be aware of your behavior. Instead of berating people for missing a target, for instance, bring calm, clarity, and concern to the real issues by asking how and why things got off track. Understand what the group needs from you in the future.

4. You don’t admit your mistakes. To err is human. When you mess up, what do you do? Do you check your ego at the door and acknowledge your mistake? Do you say to your team: “I made a bad call on that one” or “in reflecting on it, my assessment wasn’t fair and I apologize?” In a New York Times interview, Siemens Chief Executive Officer Peter Löscher said: “I’m always telling people, ‘Look, I make a mistake every day, but hopefully I’m not making the same mistake twice.’” By admitting your own mistakes, you not only acknowledge your humanity but allow others to acknowledge theirs. As a result, communication opens up, mutual trust is built, and employees feel free to take creative risks that can move the business ahead.

5. You spin the truth. Do people know that they count on you to tell the truth or do they just assume you’ll tweak it? Whether the issue is acknowledging financial troubles or announcing the latest restructuring, you must resist sheltering employees or serving your own agenda. Tell it like it is. Spin never passes the sniff test anyway; people see it for what it is and sooner or later, lose trust.

6. You duck people and performance issues. Leadership requires letting people know where they stand. How often do you consciously or unconsciously choose to sweep people’s performance issues under the rug? In turning a blind eye to a weak link and thinking that your stronger performers will pick up the slack, you set yourself up for trouble. Resentment sets in across the team, and employees’ trust in you goes out the window. Eventually, you risk not fully engaging your stars or worse, losing them altogether.

7. You don’t walk your talk. Sure, you say that you value trust. Do your words and actions do more to break trust than build it? For instance, if you proclaim that people come first but you don’t invest in employees’ growth and development or give workers a voice in the business, what does that say? To employees, it speaks volumes—and shatters trust.

Finally, a common mistake leaders make is to assume that their position alone makes them worthy of others’ trust. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s only through behavior that leaders can build trust.

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