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What do you mean, Trust?

When I coach or consult to executives, I almost always conduct a 360 assessment. I ask peers, team members, and managers questions about the person’s strengths and weaknesses, competencies, and areas for development. Toward the end, I ask, among other things, “Do you trust him or her?”

Over the past decade, I have had only two occasions where the response reflected a fundamental concern about ethics. The answers I usually get, as you might expect, range from “Hell, no!” to “Without hesitation.” The positive responses reflect sentiments like, “I trust him to do what he thinks is right for the business” or “I feel like she always has my back.”

The response that has been most interesting to me, however, is some version of, “What do you mean?” Or a very long pause that implies the same question. The responses that follow usually sound like some of the following:

  • “Well…I feel like she Is watching out for herself more than me.”
  • “I don’t think he’d do anything unethical. But when things go wrong, I worry he’ll throw me under the bus.”
  • “I have seen him present my ideas or my work and never give me credit for it.”
  • “She hovers over everything I do – I don’t think she trusts me!

When people talk about trusting a manager, there are a few things that really matter:

  • Will you defend me when there is conflict with other teams?
  • Will you protect me when I make a mistake?
  • Will you support me, advocate for me for promotions, raises, recognition?
  • Do you care about me on a personal level, or am I just a tool for your own success?

When you give a presentation to the CEO, and your data is wrong, or there are mistakes, how do leaders respond? Do you blame a member of your team, or someone else’s team, or do you own it yourself? One client of mine, new to his job as Chief Marketing Officer, and feeling very insecure, pointed the finger at his team members, implying he might have to replace them. Even though he did this in a semi-private meeting, word got around quickly, and he lost the trust of his team, which he never earned back.

By the same token, when one of your colleagues criticizes your team member in public, do you let it slide or come to their defense? Public feedback works the same way. Think about it this way: The feedback you give someone in private is between you and the team member. But in public, the only way you build loyalty and commitment in your team is to stand up for them. Public criticism creates shame. Shame leads to anger. Anger leads to mistrust (to paraphrase Yoda).

Trust is a state of mind, based on emotion more than logic. Some people start by trusting and wait to see if you lose their trust. Others hold their judgment and wait to see if you earn their trust. Regardless of how trust starts, once you lose someone’s trust, it is a devil to get back, and leading without trust is about as difficult as it gets. The strongest leaders I have worked with follow three simple rules:

  1. Take responsibility for things that go wrong, and give credit to others when things go right (at least in public)
  2. Make sure your team knows you’ll protect and defend them
  3. Make sure your team members know you care about them as people.

How do you create trust with your team? How have you addressed it when you broke that trust?