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Do Your People Trust You, Part II. What Do You Do if They Don’t?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what trust means for most people. And I identified a few simple, clear guidelines that can help you gauge whether you are trusted or not:

  1. Take responsibility for things that go wrong, and give credit to others when things go right;
  2. Make sure your team knows you’ll protect and defend them, even when they are wrong;
  3. Make sure your team members know you care about them as people.

The resignation of Travis Kalanick over the past few weeks clearly shows the impact of a loss of trust.  But loss of trust isn’t usually this traumatic – most often, it creates subtle problems, interfering with productivity and engagement.  And employees rarely say, “You did X and I don’t trust you anymore”.

Several people wrote me, asking, “I’m not sure my people trust me in this way. What should I do?”. There are several steps involved in taking action on trust.  The first step is easy: “ask them”.  Of course, that’s easier said than done. You can try that, but many people are reluctant to give direct feedback to a manager or colleague in a work context. It may be easier to get someone to ask on your behalf. In a large organization, that could be someone from human resources.  Or, you can arrange to have a 360 survey done.  Your company may have one, and there are some that can be done as one-offs.  Another alternative is to get an executive coach to conduct a set of interviews to find out if trust is an issue, and give you anonymous feedback.

Second, it is important to understand the context of your lack of trust. If you think you have lost the trust of one person, be sure that person should put their trust in you. If he or she is an under-performer, and has been given warnings or put on an improvement plan, then they aren’t likely to trust you, and for good reason. And some people may be in direct competition with you, for a promotion or raise.  In these cases, his or her feedback should be viewed with caution.

Also, there are times when you have to stand with your First Team (your manager and peers) even when you do not agree with them, which can make people question your motives.  For example, one client of mine was seen by his team as “caving in” to his manager, and not defending their point of view or their needs.  In part, that was true.  But my client’s manager was in fact, an inflexible executive who was virtually impossible to influence once he made a decision, and who could humiliate others in public when they disagreed with him. As a result, my client picked his battles carefully, complying with all but the most important issues.  In his mind, he had to balance self-protection, protection of his team, and defending the most important priorities.

So, let’s assume you do not have any underperformers who are detractors.  And let’s assume you do not have to defend against a capricious, aggressive manager. Here are some things you can do to increase your trustworthiness with team members and peers:

  1. Make sure you never talk about one colleague to another colleague.  Even if they agree with you.  At some point, he or she will ask themselves, “What does she say about me to other people?”.
  2. Follow the rule, “Praise in public, tough feedback in private”.  Take people aside and have the difficult discussion with them, usually after the public meeting.
  3. Make sure that you defend your team members with other executives and other teams.  Don’t defend blindly, and if you need to take ownership of a problem, do that – the buck stops with you. But don’t let junior people get dressed down unconstructively.  Everyone will react positively to you coming to someone’s defense in public.
  4. Make sure you promote your people with others, and give them a platform to shine.  One of the small things that undermines trust is when you take credit for work your team did.  It just tells people that they are less important than you, which makes you less trustworthy.
  5. If you know specific things you have done that disrupted that trust (threw someone under the bus, did not defend them, etc.), own up to it.  Admit that you have been less than trustworthy and that you will work to do better.
  6. Be consistent about these behaviors.  It doesn’t take long to develop a reputation, and once you have that reputation, it will take a long time to change it. You have to be 100% consistent about being trustworthy or you will be tagged with “There he goes again!” and your “change clock” resets to zero.

Trust is not essential to business success – there are many leaders who have performed well despite a lack of trust.  But trust increases people’s commitment, desire to perform, and willingness to stand by you when there are roadblocks.  As the saying goes, “What goes around, comes around”.