The Enemy of Trust and 6 Ways to Defeat It

coach-yellingToday is Super Bowl Sunday, and along with tens of millions of other people, I’ll be watching the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks battle it out for the NFL championship. One of the things I enjoy about watching sports is paying attention to the “game within the game.” I observe how the coaches interact with each other and the players, how they react to the highs and lows of the game, and how they lead their teams.

I’ve observed many coaches lead through fear and intimidation. I’ve seen them criticize players for making mistakes, or yell and scream at players in frustration because the game isn’t going the way the coach would like. I’ve noticed when coaches are “screamers,” their players eventually tune them out, or even worse, become so afraid to make mistakes they fail to give their best effort.

Unfortunately, this kind of leadership isn’t limited to the world of sports. Our workplaces have plenty of leaders who try to lead through fear. Maybe you work for one? Maybe you are one?

Even if you aren’t the stereotypical gruff, volatile, loud, in-your-face type of boss, you may be casting a shadow of fear over your team without even realizing it. Your positional authority alone is enough to create a certain amount of anxiety and stress in the hearts of your employees. Add in some common fear-inducing behaviors leaders often use like hoarding information, losing their temper, and not protecting the interests of their employees, you’ve got the recipe for creating timid and fearful team members.

Fear is the enemy of trust. It’s hard, if not virtually impossible, for trust to survive if there is fear in a relationship. The two are polar opposites just like night and day, black and white, pain and pleasure, success and failure, or even Michigan and Ohio State (Go Blue!).

In order to become a trusted leader, you need to lower, and hopefully eliminate, the amount of fear in the relationships with those you lead. Here are six ways to lower fear and build trust:

1. Be consistent in your behavior – Unpredictability breeds fear. If your employees can’t reasonably predict how you’ll react in a given situation, they’ll be afraid to step out and take risks. They’ll always be on edge, not knowing who’s going to show up at the office, the “good boss” that will support their efforts and have their back should they make a mistake, or the “bad boss” that will fly off the handle and punish them for their failure.

2. Treat mistakes as learning opportunities – High-trust cultures give employees confidence to set BHAG’s – big hairy audacious goals – and risk failure by not achieving them. Rather than penalize your employees when they make a mistake, use the opportunity to coach them on how to do better the next time around.

3. Explain the “why” – Let your team members know the “why” behind the questions you ask or the decisions you make. It will help them better understand your thought processes and motivations and create more buy-in to your leadership. Failure to explain the “why” leaves people wondering about why you do what you do and sows the seeds of doubt and fear.

4. Share information about yourself – The Johari Window is a helpful model that illustrates how you can improve communication and build trust with others by disclosing information about yourself. By soliciting the feedback of others, you can learn more about yourself and how others perceive you. Check out one of my previous articles about how you can build trust by being more vulnerable with people.

5. Solicit and use feedback from others – Leaders who rule by fear generally don’t bother soliciting feedback or input from others when making decisions. It’s the boss’ way or the highway. Trusted leaders seek input from others and look for ways to incorporate their ideas into the decisions that are made.

6. Be nice – Say “please”… “thank you”… “you’re welcome”… a little kindness goes a long way in building trust. Simply making the effort to be friendly and build a rapport with others signals to them that you care about them as individuals and not just as workers that show up to do a job.

The coaches of today’s Super Bowl teams, John Fox (Broncos) and Pete Carroll (Seahawks), aren’t known as fear-inducing leaders. In fact, they’re quite the opposite – positive, upbeat, steady, and encouraging. Their players feel secure in the consistency of their leadership and perform without fear of how they’ll respond if they make a mistake. That style of leadership produces winning teams. Give it a try with yours.

7 Comments on “The Enemy of Trust and 6 Ways to Defeat It

  1. Warm and fuzzy. If your audience are employees that enjoy a comfort zone and are okay with failure, then this is a great article. The opposite of Fear is Fight. Trust is a learned response action based on the emotional arousal of Fear. Fear is an emotion. Trust is a choice. Anger, fear, and loud voices are not always the answer. However, anger and fear are two of the greatest motivators in the history of success.

    • I can appreciate your viewpoint Buckie, although I don’t agree that trust is just a warm and fuzzy concept that makes it ok for people to accept failure. Fear and anger are two excellent motivators, and if your model for leadership success is Genghis Khan or Adolf Hitler, then you’re on the right track. But success in today’s workplace isn’t based on fear and anger. It’s based on trust, mutual respect, and encouraging people to bring their best to the workplace each and every day, not because they are fearful of losing their jobs if they don’t, but because they WANT to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts to the dialogue.


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  3. I really loved your point of view on this and it parallels much of what we do with our sports coaches. We really believe that positive encouragement drives the most change in our student athletes and, while there is definitely a time to be “tough”, it can be done in a respectful (while still authoritative) way to gain trust.

    • Thanks for your comments. I coached youth sports for over 15 years and in my experience I can say that the same principles apply. If you’re interested in other sports-related articles I’ve written, click on the “Sports” category on the right navigation menu. One of my personal favorites is an article I wrote about Duke’s Coach K.

      Take care,


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