The Trouble with Trust

In my last post I started out writing about trust and it sort of morphed into something else. Let’s see if I can stay on track this time…

Trust! It’s vital to any positive relationship. While I suppose we can have some sort of relationship without trust it seems to me that it wouldn’t be a relationship that we would truly value.

The trouble with trust is that it is fragile. Very, very fragile.

If you’re actually going to lead people then trust is even more vital. I don’t know a leader, any type of leader, who would intentionally destroy the trust of their people and yet, destroy it they do!

Whether by accident, by mistake or by simple thoughtlessness, trust is damaged by leaders every day. Once the damage is done it can take years and tremendous effort to repair it.

So what are the “accidental” destroyers of trust? Well here are just a few “accidents” that leaders sometimes make without even thinking.

Broken Promises
Your leadership is only as good as your word. This one seems obvious but it depends on the definition someone applies to the word “promise.” What you as a leader might think is a kind of throw-away noncommittal answer your people may take as a promise. Make your communications clear, concise and definite to avoid this issue.

Changing the “Rules”
There are two challenges here, one is actually changing the rules in the middle of the game and the other one is applying the rules differently to different people. It has taken me a long time to understand how “gray” life really is, black and white rules, orderly processes and zero “exceptions” would be a easy way to live. It’s also an unrealistic way to lead. Your ability to apply “the rules” equally will determine your effectiveness as a leader. So if I were you, I’d be perusing your organization’s policy manual to get rid of unnecessary rules and regulations. The more unneeded “rules” you have the more likely you are to put yourself in a tough spot when it comes to applying then equally.

Shirking Your Responsibilities
Your people won’t do more than they see you doing. You can ask your people to move mountains and they will, IF they see you pushing with them. If they get to the mountain only to see you in your LazyBoy then don’t expect great things from them. While you’re relaxing your credibility is going down the drain and the trust of your people is going with it.

Public Criticism
I get the fact that sometimes your emotions “win” and you just let loose with a barrage of criticism in front of the team. That causes lots of problems but here is the big one: not only did you destroy the trust of the person you criticized, you destroyed the trust of the rest of the team too. They are just waiting for their “turn” to be flogged in front of their colleagues. The likely result is that they don’t trust you enough to be honest with you. Their efforts begin to center around protecting themselves… from you.

Avoided Conflict
This is a hard one because it is kind of counterintuitive. On the surface, conflict would seem to erode trust but the opposite is actually true. If you’re an Authentic Servant Leader then you care enough to confront with compassion. That builds trust because your people always know where they stand and they know what is expected of them. If you are a conflict avoider then you are NOT helping anyone. You’re simply allowing the conflict to fester and grow. Whether you realize it or not unresolved conflict negatively affects your relationships with the people around you. No one knows what you really think, they don’t know where they stand with you and as a result, their trust level goes down.

Running from or ignoring conflict is no way to lead. Do yourself a favor and stop considering conflict to be about fighting and start considering it to be about resolution, relationship and trust building. If you can’t build trust you’ll find it very difficult to lead, some might even say impossible to lead.

I could go on and on about situations that harm trust. It is just so darn easy to damage and so darn hard to repair. So I’ll leave you with a bit of advice from Dale Carnegie: when you’re wrong admit it quickly and empathically.

If you’re leading people you’re going to make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will make it harder for your people to trust you. Failing to acknowledge your mistake harms your credibility even more. 

You’re people actually DO want to trust you, make it as easy for them as you possibly can.

10 thoughts on “The Trouble with Trust

  1. Hi Steve- “Real” trust is built over time and in incremental steps through character, competence and consistency sprinkled with a bit of generosity.

    Authentic trustworthy leaders don’t destroy trust because they walk their talk and don’t have the “accidents” you describe.

    Trust is not that fragile if it has been built over time and with the right foundation. If not, it can be destroyed very quickly, because it didn’t really ever exist.

    Trust is also not that complicated if it is authentic. What makes trust complicated is it is usually taken for granted instead of being consciously practiced.

    Think about the people you trust the most and why.

    • Thanks for your comment, I think one of the reasons leaders, even Authentic leaders can take trust for granted is because they think it isn’t fragile because they have built it over time. All trust is fragile, leaders who believe that trust, any trust, is durable find that out all too quickly.

      The best way to maintain trust is to treat it as if it is fragile, because in fact it is and it is for all of us.

      • Steve- not sure I understand what you are trying to say. Think about trust breaches in companies where leaders had banked trust. J&J and Tylenol comes to mind. How were they impacted vs. companies and their leaders that had not?

        You say all trust is fragile, but that’s not my experience. What’s fragile is something that may look like real trust but isn’t.

  2. Perhaps at one time trust wasn’t as fragile as it is today… Tylenol IS a good example when “banked” trust served a company well. But that was then… the Brian Williams case is a good example of “today’s trust.” He went from one of the most trusted people in America to one of the least trusted in 48 hours… and he has a TON of work in front of him to earn it back. IF people will even give him a chance to earn it back…

    But here is my point with the post…. if you take the trust of your people for granted you will do something stupid to lose it. Earning and KEEPING trust is real work, it does not come easily and these days it’s tougher than ever to keep it.

    • Steve- Today’s trust and yesterday’s trust are the same trust. Perhaps there’s a bit more transparency than yesterday, but what else has changed?

      Apparently Brian Williams is a liar. That’s a big breach of trust. It’s also stupid. I’m not sure it matters whether he lied “then” or lied now.

      Earning and keeping trust is real work, but the trust that’s earned and kept over time is not fragile. Doing something stupid doesn’t necessarily bust it. Lying probably will.

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