When your team won’t trust you, that’s job number one.
If there’s one realization every leader can take to heart from the pandemic and social-political turmoil gripping the United States right now, it’s that you cannot lead without trust. Civil society requires trust; people must be able to trust those who they entrust to make policy and enforce the laws. When that trust is violated, the results are heart-rending. When people live in fear of authorities because of the color of their skin or can’t trust medical advice and policies because of overt political manipulation, collaboration and progress are impossible.
The same holds true for your business leaders. When your team won’t trust you, results break down, relationships dissolve into suspicion, your A-players leave, and those that remain do the least they can to get by.
In our research for Courageous Cultures, one fact that stood out to us is that when you have a culture of trust, participation, mutual respect, and valuing everyone’s contribution, people don’t need much courage. However, the less trust you have, the more courage it takes for people to show up with solutions and micro-innovations.
The challenge most leaders face is that they feel like they’re trustworthy. We’ve heard it many times:
“I care about my people, I’m doing everything I can, I think I’m leading with integrity, but I don’t understand why the team won’t trust me.”
Frequently, the reason trust breaks down is that the leader focused on one element of trust, but missed one or more important aspects. There are three common problems that erode trust.
As you think about these causes, keep in mind that you might not have been the one who caused the issue. It may have been the leader before you or prior life experience.
3 Reasons Your Team Won’t Trust You
1. They doubt your intentions.
People don’t feel that you care about them. They feel like you’re using them to get results. They’re just a replaceable part in the machinery of your work.
What to do about it:
While some leaders can be callous and view people this way, in our experience, most do not. But, many leaders struggle because their team doubts their intentions. Building this kind of trust starts with self-reflection.
Why do you lead?
Is it for the money? For the prestige? For the power?
If these are the reasons you took the job, you’ll start with a trust deficit. People know when you’re in it for yourself. They’ll also know and trust you when you’re doing it for the purpose and the people.
Once you sort out your motivations and get focused on results and relationships, pay attention to how you communicate. What do your actions say?
When you say you care about their career, back it up with action. Make sure they have a development plan that helps them grow in the direction they want to go. Regularly encourage, coach, challenge, and train.
When you say you care about the team, can they see you make choices that are uncomfortable for you, but that helps them to be more effective? Some leaders we’ve seen do this best show up for the toughest assignments and inconvenient shifts. Without saying a word, they say, “I’m in this with you.”
When you say you care, does that mean you’ve taken the time to know your team as human beings? What are they struggling with? What matters to them? What energizes them?
2. They doubt your follow-through.
Do what you say you will do—sounds easy, right? But leaders get themselves in trouble with this aspect of trust all the time.
There are several problems here. The first one is a personality issue. Some leaders talk in terms of general intentions or ideas. If this is you, you might say, “That’s an outstanding idea. We can totally do that.” You mean it as an enthusiastic affirmation that it’s a good idea worth exploring.
But what your team heard is, “We’re doing that.”
Now, when you don’t do it, you’ve lost their trust. In their eyes, you’ve become a leader who doesn’t mean what they say.
For other leaders, the road to broken trust is paved with good intentions. If “I meant it when I said it” is a regular mantra for you, you’re probably over-extending and saying “yes” too often.
What to do about it:
Get to know your people and how they understand your words. Be aware of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. If you’re speaking in terms of intentions and possibilities, make that clear. Eg: “That’s an outstanding idea and I would love to explore it and see if it could work.”
If you’re caught in the trap of saying “yes” too often, start by reframing the issue. You’re saying yes to make people happy, but you actually disappoint them. Saying no is a little pain at the moment, but hurts far less than the disappointment of dashed hopes.
There will always be times when you can’t follow through the way you intended. When this happens, take responsibility and own what happened. When you show up with the confidence to take responsibility and humility to acknowledge that you didn’t meet their expectations, your team will trust you more (as long as it’s not an everyday occurrence).
3. They doubt your capability.
They know that you care and they can count on you to follow through—but can you get it done?
What to do about it:
This is where your competence, knowledge, and skill come in. Do you understand the issue well enough to take action? Do you know how to navigate your organization’s politics and stakeholders to get things done? Are you able to hold the team accountable for commitments? (And if you tolerate any pattern of abuse, harassment, or discrimination, forget about anything else until you fix that.)
If you struggle with credibility, consider limiting your new commitments and focus on developing the skills to get the results you need. This is where a mentor, coach, or training can help you.
When you’re new to a role, don’t hide your ignorance. Rely on your team to share their expertise and help you learn everything you need to know.
One More Thought When Your Team Won’t Trust You
We talked with a manager in a recent live-remote workshop who had made a mistake a year ago. He’d done everything he could to make it right for his team. Even so, one of his team members continued to bring up the manager’s year-old mistake, using it as an excuse for their poor performance.
In these situations, when you’ve done everything you can, and you’ve still got one person who doesn’t trust you, it’s time for a direct conversation about the problem. Trust goes two ways. You’ve owned what happened and done everything you could to make it right, now you need to be able to trust that they’re going to do what they need to do. It’s okay to ask if they can do that. If they can’t, it’s time to find a new place for them.
Remember, when your team won’t trust you, it’s always your problem—even if you inherited the mess and didn’t do anything to cause it. You can’t change what happened to your team before, but you can earn their trust now.
Micro-innovations, problem-solving, and customer service all begin with trust. When you match competence with caring and commitment, you’ll earn your team’s trust and they’ll be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when things don’t make sense.
We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your thoughts about what happens when your team won’t trust you and how you rebuild the trust.