Trust is one of the most important leadership competencies a leader can develop with their team members. It can take months or even years for a leader to build trust. And, unfortunately, it only takes one action contrary to the leader’s or organization’s stated values to lose all the trust they worked so hard to earn.
Consider this question. Why are some leaders trusted and spoken positively about (whether they’re in the room or not). While other leaders are not trusted, even when they should be? Recently, one executive we were coaching was talking about a peer when he stated, “Do you know how to tell when he’s lying?” When I gave him a puzzled look, he added, “His lips are moving.”
People either trust you, or they don’t, and there is very rarely any middle ground. What inspired this blog is our recent work with a highly trusted leader who, over the course of a couple months, lost the trust of almost everyone on his team. He had a new executive leader who raised the bar on what was expected from him and his department. This change impacted his level of confidence, causing him to question whether he was the right person for the job. As a result, his manager and direct reports observed the following changes in his behavior:
- Instead of giving credit to the team members for the team’s positive results, he started to personally take credit for their successes.
- When there were problems, he began publicly blaming individuals instead of focusing on solutions.
- Instead of being a proactive communicator, he began cancelling weekly department meetings and withdrew from email communication.
- He lied to team members about what information he did and didn’t know regarding organizational changes.
- He made promises he knew could not be kept.
Fortunately, there is good news in all of this bad news. This leader was able to recognize and take ownership for changes in his behavior. He realized he had taken actions that had created (possibly irreparable) harm to the trust his team members had in him. His question to me was, “Is there any hope of ever rebuilding this trust?” What a great question, and my response was a tough one. “The easiest thing for you to do is to go find another job. Then, every day, do what trustworthy leaders do.” This wasn’t the answer he was hoping to hear, and his response was, “I don’t want to leave if I don’t have to, and I’ll do whatever it takes to rebuild my team’s trust in me. What do I need to do?”
We have published several blogs on the importance of trust in leadership, and it is one of the central tenets of the Loyalty Connection covered in our white paper, 8 Proven Strategies to Workplace Excellence. If, however, you are in the same boat as our leader and want to rebuild lost trust, here are 10 actions you can take:
- Recognize that rebuilding trust is going to take a long time. Most people, when they have been burned by a leader, will not respond well when the leader states, “From this point forward, you can trust me.” To expect instantly trust is unreasonable. Regaining trust is like marathon training; make a commitment to go the distance and do the right thing every day.
- Admit you screwed up. Part of re-building trust is letting go of any excuse for why you did what you did. Come to confession with your team and say, “I made a mistake. If I had to do this over again, I would not repeat my actions. You have my commitment moving forward that I will handle this differently.” Ask people for honest feedback on what you can do to rebuild trust.
- Do what you say you’re going to do. To build trust, you need to do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you are going to do it. There is no good excuse for not doing what you promise others you will do.
- Tell the truth. This is so easy and obvious to say, but it is much harder to do on a daily basis. Why? Because the only time you gain points for telling the truth is when it costs you something to do so. Telling the truth, even when it may be uncomfortable or the other person may not want to hear it, will show people they can always trust you for an honest answer.
- Be vulnerable. People find it easier to trust you when you are transparent. When you have the ability to say, “I don’t know the answer,” or, “I might be wrong,” people know that you are human. People who have a high need to defend what they did wrong, instead of admitting their mistake, are not trusted.
- Help and support others…daily. Most people will go out of their way to help you when they see that you are more interested in other’s success than their own. Especially when people feel that you truly care about and supports their success.
- Give away the credit… claim the blame. When your team is successful, give all the praise and recognition to your team. When there is a failure, step up to the plate and boldly state, “I take responsibility for ensuring this problem doesn’t happen again.”
- Hold team members equally accountable. Great leaders do not have favorites. They hold all team members equally accountable to high performance standards so that no employee perceives that the leader has favorites on the team. Trust is re-established through consistent expectations and behavior.
Gaining back lost trust is easier said than done. It requires patience, perseverance, and most of all, time. Leadership is nonexistent without the relationships you build with your employees. Without trust, you have no followers. And without followers, there is no leader.