The Top 10 Ways Leaders Erode Trust

“Call me irresponsible, call me unreliable
Throw in undependable too”
Frank Sinatra ~ Call Me Irresponsible (1963)

Irresponsible, unreliable, and undependable make for great words in a song, but if those adjectives describe your leadership style then chances are your people don’t trust you.

Now, I believe most people strive to be honorable and trustworthy in their leadership roles. There aren’t too many people who wake up in the morning and on their way into the office exclaim to themselves, “I think today is a fabulous day to break someone’s trust!” Most leaders unintentionally erode trust through what I call “trust busting” behaviors. Despite our best intentions, we sometimes get in our own way and bust trust without even realizing it.

I did a little crowd-sourcing with my team and asked them to send me a list of the most common trust-busting behaviors they’ve experienced from leaders in their career. The wisdom of the crowd was amazing! The behaviors on their lists were eerily similar. In classic David Letterman style, here’s the list of the Top 10 Ways Leaders Erode Trust:

10. Spinning the truth – Leaders erode trust when they try to shape or color the truth to their liking rather than being transparent and authentic in their communication. Spinning the truth is manipulation, just in a more socially acceptable manner, but it’s manipulation nonetheless. Save spin for the gym, not the workplace.

9. Not being available – If your schedule has you constantly booked in meetings and unavailable to the questions or concerns of your team members, you are sending the message that you don’t care about them. That may not be how you really feel, but it’s the message that’s being sent. Your schedule is a reflection of your values and priorities, so be sure to build in time for regular check-in meetings with your team members or just blocks of time where people can drop in for quick questions.

8. Not soliciting or listening to feedback – Believe it or not, your team members probably have pretty good ideas about how to improve your business if you’ll only ask. And if you do ask, make sure you do something with their feedback. Asking for feedback and then disregarding it erodes trust more than not asking for it at all.

7. Withholding information – Why do leaders withhold information? It’s because information is power and power is control. Most people think distrust is the opposite of trust. It’s not. Control is the opposite of trust. If you’re withholding information it’s likely because you’re trying to control your environment and the people around you. People without information cannot act responsibly, but people with information are compelled to act responsibly.

6. Taking credit for other people’s work – Leaders can easily fall into the habit of taking credit for work of their team members. Because it is work produced by their team, the leader rationalizes that it’s OK to take credit for it personally. Trustworthy leaders do the opposite. They call out the good performance of team members and credit those individuals for doing the work. Taking credit for the work of others is another form of plagiarizing. It sends the message to your team members that you don’t value their work and it’s more important for your ego to get credit than giving it to someone else.

5. Not keeping confidences – Integrity is the hallmark of trustworthy leaders. If someone tells you something in confidence then it should never be shared with someone else. Gossip, hallway conversations, or speaking “manager to manager” about something told to you in confidence should not happen. Above all, you should protect your integrity as a leader. At the end of the day it’s the only thing you have.

4. Playing favorites – Want to erode trust and divide your team from within? Then play favorites and watch your team burn. It’s a recipe for disaster. Now, treating people fairly doesn’t mean you have to treat everyone the same. Most leaders resort to this leadership tactic because it’s the easiest thing to do. In reality, it can be the most unfair thing you do. Aristotle said, “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.” They key to fairness is treating people equitably and ethically given their unique situation.

3. Inconsistency – A key element of being trustworthy is reliability and predictability. Trustworthy leaders behave consistently from setting to setting. They don’t have wild swings of behavior, exhibit temperamental outbursts, or say one thing and do another. Inconsistent leaders keep their team members on edge because they never know who is going to show up. It’s hard to trust someone when you can’t rely on the consistency of their character.

2. Micromanage – As I mentioned in regards to not sharing information (point #7), micromanagement is about control. Micro-managers often rationalize their behavior by saying they’re trying to ensure high quality, or they have the most knowledge and expertise, or they are protecting their team members from failure. That’s BS. Hire smart people, train them properly, and then let them do their jobs. Trust requires risk and leaders need to be the first to take a risk, extend trust to team members, and let them succeed or fail on their own.

And the #1 way leaders erode trust…

1. Not keeping their commitments – I think most leaders have every intention to follow through on their promises, but the problem lies in our eagerness to make the promise without having a clear idea on what it will take to deliver. Leaders tend to be problem-solvers and when a problem presents itself, leaders spring into action to marshal the resources, develop an action plan, and get the problem solved. It’s important to carefully chose your language when you make commitments with other people because although you may not use the word “promise,” others may interpret your agreement to take the next action step as a promise to accomplish the goal. Be clear in your communications and set the proper expectations for what you are and aren’t committing to do.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for a little crooning, here’s a link to Michael Buble’s great cover of Call Me Irresponsible.

Randy Conley is the V.P. of Client Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts normally appear the fourth or 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.

8 thoughts on “The Top 10 Ways Leaders Erode Trust

  1. As I ponder this topic on trust I can’t help but think that there may have been a time when I have unintentionally did something that doesn’t sit well with someone. I always have the best intentions, but sometimes it’s not enough or appropriate across the board for everyone. How do you effectively “check yourself” so to say, of the unintentional untrustworthy behaviors with your team? Sometimes, people do not speak up when they feel like the trust has been broken, for what ever reason they have. Would you say it’s a good idea to just open a conversation to discuss trust?

    • Great question Alycia. Yes, I think it is a good idea to have discussions about trust with your colleagues. Most people don’t think about trust until it’s been broken, and oftentimes it’s too late to do anything to fix it. The ABCD Trust Model is a helpful tool that establishes a common framework for what trust is and how people can be trustworthy. You can find more info about the ABCD Trust Model at http://leadingwithtrust.com.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Randy

  2. Pingback: The Top 10 Ways Leaders Bust Trust |

  3. Pingback: FAITH AND WORK: Connecting Sunday to Monday | Coram Deo ~

  4. This is a good question. The problem is that the answer may depend on the size and culture of the organization, department, the generational profile, degree of compliance or creativity in the work etc. The kind of approach one takes to trust in a 10 person entrepreneurial start-up is a bit different from the approach one takes in an “Eiffel tower” hierarchical public sector organization, or a profit-driven mega-law firm.

    A culture of trust is an active creation. Effective managers and leaders (and would-be leaders) take time to think about the “soft stuff” (people stuff) of business as well as the “hard stuff” (task stuff) of business.

    Many leaders who joined the business world, or who became leaders from the 2008 recession onward, experienced a world of task first and people second. Worker-leaders, without much time or training to think carefully about culture creation, are often expected to learn these skills themselves on-line or from books.

    Good leadership/management is really hard. Those doing the job, whether emerging, operational or strategic level, deserve training. Up to date, generationally-appropriate, interactive and accelerated etc.. but regular, from people who understand training and who have managed too.

    • Hello Glynis,

      I like your categorization of trust as an “active creation.” Trust is a living dynamic in relationships and it takes constant nurturing and support to grow and thrive.

      Take care,

      Randy

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