Four Words a Boss Never Wants to Hear


Bosses hear all sorts of crazy things from their team members. Some of the things employees say are funny, some outlandish, some critical, some stupid, some helpful, and some are just downright mean. Receiving feedback comes with the territory of being a leader. I’ve learned you must have a thick skin and a soft heart when it comes to leading people. You can’t let the negative chatter get under your skin and give you a jaundiced outlook on people, yet you also need the emotional maturity to examine the feedback and see if there is something you need to learn or improve upon.

But there are four words a boss never wants to hear: “I don’t trust you.”

However, you will rarely, if ever, hear someone say that to you directly. Trust is one of those topics, along with religion and politics, that is usually taboo to discuss openly in the workplace. It’s often talked about in the shadows and hallways of the organization, not in conference rooms and one-on-one meetings. Instead, you will see how people don’t trust you through behaviors and actions like:

  • Excluding you from activities
  • Not sharing information with you
  • Not following through on commitments to you
  • Stress or tension in your relationships
  • Team members not taking risks
  • Team members doing the bare minimum to get by
  • Low morale and productivity in your team
  • Rumors and gossip abound in your team
  • Team members question your decisions

So if this is your reality, how do you turn it around? What do you do to address low trust with your team? Here are three steps to get you started:

1. Own it – Assess the feedback, take it to heart, and determine where you need to improve. If you’ve broken trust, consider this five-step process to rebuild it. Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes. Owning up to your shortcomings and apologizing for your behavior is a key way to infuse your relationships with a high dosage of trust.

2. Be consistent – DWYSYWD – Do What You Say You Will Do. Follow through on your commitments, be reliable, and walk your talk. Steady and consistent leaders inspire trust because their people can reasonably predict how they will behave in most situations. Leaders with Jekyll and Hyde personalities create a culture of fear, suspicion, and uncertainty, whereas trusted leaders create an atmosphere of security, confidence, and consistency.

3. Be patient – Trust takes time; it doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re starting in a trust deficit, it can take even more time than if you’re starting from a neutral or low-trust position. Focus on using behaviors that build trust, such as displaying competence in your job, acting with integrity, establishing meaningful connections with your people, and being a reliable and dependable person. Stay committed to your goal of building trust and the results will follow.

Trust is the foundation of all successful relationships. With it, all things are possible. Without it, you’re pushing a large boulder uphill. If you are hearing, or seeing, “I don’t trust you” from your people, take steps now to remedy the situation. Your success as a leader depends on it.

Randy Conley is the Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts appear the last Thursday of every month. For more insights on trust and leadership, visit Randy at his Leading with Trust blog or follow him on Twitter @RandyConley.

19 thoughts on “Four Words a Boss Never Wants to Hear

  1. When I first saw the title (and before I read the article) my mind immediately went to ‘That’s not my job.” as the four words a boss never wants to hear. As a learning and development professional doing management training and leadership development work I’m used to hearing my front line managers point to that phrase as one that rears it’s ugly head often. I think it’s fair to say though that anytime that phrase appears it’s likely a trust deficit exists as well. Both phrases are clear indicators of employee engagement issues. Given the updated data that Gallup just shared on employee engagement your article is timely and prudent. Great suggestions.

    • Hi Joe. “That’s not my job” is another four word phrase that bosses don’t want to hear! There are definite connections between the two phrases and low trust and low engagement are certainly key factors in both. I believe it’s virtually impossible to have a culture of high engagement if there isn’t a solid level of trust. Without trust present, people won’t invest their discretionary effort to help the company achieve its goals.

      Thanks for your comments,


      • Not quite imho: Sometimes people will tell you “that’s not my job” because they are overwhelmed, under stress, overworked, or because they simply got offended last time they were asked to do someone else’s job. My two cents: find out the root cause (or at least try to) behind those words.

    • Thanks for your comments Anthony. I like how you emphasize trust needing to happen “all of the time.” It’s not just now and then, or every so often. Trust has to be consistently displayed, day in and day out, in order for it to fully develop.

      Take care,


  2. Trust levels may be low among team members. This will retard team performance. What can a leader do to help rebuild trust among team members and not necessarily between the leader and followers?

  3. Pingback: Four Words a Boss Never Wants to Hear | The Extra MILE Community Blog

  4. Pingback: Carries

  5. Great article, thank you! I have an employee that is not trustworthy, and not only in my view, but to his entire team. I am currently coaching him on some overall performance issues, but how do you tell an employee that he is not trusted? This article immediately made me think of him but I am not sure how to approach the subject with an employee.

    • Hi Page. I would suggest you have a discussion with the employee and keep the conversation focused on the specific behaviors that are causing the low trust. For example, if he/she is regularly missing deadlines, talk about ways to address that behavior. It’s generally not effective to lead the conversation by saying “I don’t trust you because…”!

      Best regards,


  6. Pingback: Four Words a Boss Never Wants to Hear | Typical Indian Middle Class...

  7. Pingback: Leadership in 140 Characters | Eric Echols

  8. When I saw the heading, ‘trust’ was not my first thought, possibly because it has such wide corporate ramifications that my mind went to something seemingly more specifically threatening like a valued employee saying ‘here is my resignation’. Whilst these words present a business with the opportunity to do things differently, seldom is that the Boss’s first thought.

    Trust has to be something that we exhibit from a 360 degree transparent bubble. The ability of employees to trust the boss is transferred through them to clients via an invisible chemical exchange that takes place at an unspoken level of communication. For the employee this will almost be an unconscious transfer. If they are in the right culture it ‘just is’. Clients will pick up their level of confidence in what is being presented at any point in time.

    We are continuously making trust decisions. We may not be consciously aware that we are until something happens that raises a flag. Decisions are made a lot quicker with a lot less due diligence when there is an established trust relationship. It affects every communication and every purchase decision. I think it raises a question of personal ‘core values’. What are the Boss’s core values and are they absolute or do they vary with pressure and temptation?
    This is where the line between personal character and business decisions gets erased. Thanks for stirring my thoughts.

  9. I can think of two words: “I quit”

    Even if the person saying it is the worst resource ever, it’ll be like he dumped me before I dumped him. Unless the boss wanted to fire that resource in the first place, he will fight back when he hears these words…

  10. Pingback: Trust - How I see the world | How I see the world

Leave a Reply