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All leaders desire the trust of their teams. Leaders invest a lot of effort, time, and resources in building trust in their teams. This includes establishing trust in their employees and ensuring that their employees trust them in return. Even still, many employees say they do not feel trusted by their leaders/managers. When this lack of feeling trust occurs, workplace productivity and engagement will often suffer. It’s up to leaders to signal trust in their team members in consistent, deliberate, authentic, and thoughtful ways. Remember that trust is an emotion and requires leaders to be intentional about establishing an emotional connection with the individual humans they lead.
Team members who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive and are more likely to leave the organization. Team members who do feel trusted are higher performers and exert extra effort, going above and beyond role expectations. As a bonus, when team members feel their supervisors trust them to get key tasks done, they have greater confidence in the workplace and perform at a higher level.
In short, trust begets trust. When people are trusted, they tend to trust in return. But people must feel trusted to reciprocate trust. Leaders must do more than trust team members; they need to show it. Here are some of the most important ways leaders erode trust and how they can signal it more clearly to their teams.
How Leaders Erode Trust
Mutual trust requires some degree of risk-taking and reflection. There are at least three reasons why leaders and organizations don’t demonstrate their trust in team members:
1. Lack of self-awareness. Leaders often lack the self-awareness required to realize that their own actions may communicate a lack of trust. They are likely to think that because they trust an employee, the employee will know it. But even well-intentioned actions, such as providing support, seeking more information, questioning actions, ignoring organizational hierarchy, or periodic check-ins on a project, may convey to team members that they are not trusted enough to complete the work independently.
2. Risk-averse by design. Organizations often design their structure, policies, and culture in order to minimize risk and optimize efficiency. But organizations that are risk averse may also signal that team members cannot be trusted with resources and information. Centralization of authority, restricted resources and information, and bureaucratic cultures heavy with regulation limit team member initiative. Leaders may support their team members in taking that initiative — but in a risk-averse organization, such ideas won’t likely see the light of day. And even if the fault lies with the organization’s excessive policy, employees may still blame their own supervisor, thereby eroding trust.
3. “Bottom line” mentality. Pressure to reach performance targets and control costs sometimes lead managers to do things that unintentionally signal a lack of trust. When these pressures are great, many leaders become focused on their own job security, image, and public perceptions and respond by constricting control or micromanaging all work processes and projects. This can lead to the type of thinking that focuses on only securing bottom-line outcomes, which often come at the expense of other priorities, like developing relationships and empowering team members to make independent decisions.
What Leaders Can Do to Signal Trust
Despite these common obstacles, there are several ways managers can signal trust in an employee:
Confront Reality: First, don’t assume that your team members have high trust in you. Learn to read their trust levels by understanding the risks and vulnerabilities they face. Take an inventory of the practices, policies, and controls found in your organization: Are they risk-tolerant? Is the environment free of fear? When you look at policies from the perspective of the team members, are they designed to engage team members or to protect the organization from them?
Take an assessment of your own conduct, too: This list of questions below is a good start. If you’ve answered “no” to any of these questions, your team members likely do not trust you as much as you would hope.
Does Your Team Feel Trust? 7 Questions for Leaders:
1. Do I show my team members that I feel confident in their skills and abilities?
2. Do I show my team members that I care about their welfare and personal time?
3. Do I show my employees that I think they are capable of performing their jobs?
4. Do I give my employees influence over the things that affect them most on the job and stay out of their way?
5. Do I give my employees the opportunity to take part in making job-related decisions that affect them?
6. Do I encourage my team members to take risks?
7. Do my words and deeds convey how much I trust my team members?
Giving up control.
The onus to grow mutual trust is on the leader. That means not only cultivating team members’ trust but conveying prudent, incremental trust in them. Leaders need to adequately scope assignments, grant resource authority, and not undermine it later. Ceding control also requires a certain tolerance for mistakes. Rather than taking harsh corrective action, treat team member mistakes as opportunities to facilitate learning or improve processes.
Another important way leaders take risks is by communicating openly and honestly with team members. Leaders are often reluctant to share information and explain their decisions for fear of premature leaks, second-guessing, or dissension. Being transparent signals that you trust your employees with the truth, even in difficult circumstances.
Investing in team member development
Finally, letting team members know you are willing to invest in their potential and advocate for them conveys confidence and trust. Please get to know their career aspirations, then help them reach their goals. After all, as a leader, your own success is dependent on the success of those you develop.
Leaders may be unaware of the unintended signals they send regarding how much they trust their team members. To build an environment of sustained mutual trust, learn to read the trust landscape and take care to signal trust and confidence in your team clearly.