For leaders, trust is a must. It’s the critical foundation for creating an environment where your team members can flourish, be engaged, and exercise their creativity and innovation to achieve their goals and those of the organization. Trust is the connective tissue in relationships and organizations, and it allows us to collaborate and achieve more together than we would independently.
But trust is under attack. Nearly everyday we hear or see reports of prominent leaders who have been caught in a scandal, violated the law, or broken trust with their followers in some form or fashion. Whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally, we act in ways that cause others to doubt our trustworthiness. We are our own worst enemy when it comes to undermining trust in our leadership.
What are the ways we undermine trust? Well, there are several, but five stand out above the others. These five ways have the power to destroy trust on multiple fronts. They can erode trust slowly over a long period of time, to where one day you wake up and realize the trust you thought you had in a relationship has disappeared. On the other hand, these enemies of trust can also destroy a relationship in one fatal blow, like a sledgehammer crushing a cement block. You must be on guard to constantly protect and nurture the most prized possession of your leadership—trust.
Five Ways We Undermine Trust in Our Leadership
- Self-Orientation – Self-oriented leaders place a higher priority on their personal needs and desires above those of their followers. They’re in it for themselves. They are more concerned with how they look to their higher-ups than how they’re viewed by their team members. Charles Green, co-author of the book The Trusted Advisor, uses a formula to describe how trust is built. His “trust equation” is Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) ÷ Self-Orientation. The more self-oriented (aka, selfish) you are, the greater you reduce the amount of trust you build with others. Self-oriented leaders are more focused on “me” than “we.”
- Control – Most people think distrust or mistrust is the opposite of trust. That’s not correct. The opposite of trust is control. That’s because trust requires risk, and you must give up a degree of control when you accept the risk of extending trust to someone. For trust to be established, someone must first extend trust, and it’s the leader’s responsibility to go first. Leaders who refuse to accept the risk of trusting others are forced to rely on controlling behaviors like micromanaging, not sharing information, or performing all the work themselves.
- Isolation – There are a few ways we let isolation undermine trust in our leadership. One is when leaders isolate themselves from others, either intentionally or unintentionally. Unintentional isolation happens when leaders move higher up in the organization and have less contact with their team members, become focused on other priorities, or simply get distracted with busyness to the neglect of connecting with team members. Another way isolation erodes trust is when leaders “freeze out” or intentionally ignore a team member. People trust leaders who establish a personal connection with them. They want to know their leader cares about them and their well-being. Distrust is born in the absence of connection, and isolation has a way of feeding upon itself and creating more distance in the relationship.
- Unreliability – Perhaps the most common way we undermine trust, unreliability slowly chips away at trust every time a leader fails to meet a commitment. Leaders are expected to be role models of accountability, and when they don’t keep their own commitments, it sends a message to the entire team that it’s OK for them to do the same. Unreliability is also a silent killer of trust. Most people are forgiving when small, inconsequential commitments are dropped. Being a few minutes late for a meeting, a slow response to an email, or canceling a meeting at the last minute are common examples of everyday behaviors that demonstrate unreliability. A few, infrequent occurrences of those behaviors don’t have much impact on trust, but when they happen often enough that the leader develops a reputation of being unreliable, a trust gap has developed that can be difficult to overcome.
- Dishonesty – Being dishonest is the cardinal sin of trustworthy leadership. Above all, trustworthy leaders are honest and act with integrity. That means keeping your promises, not gossiping, and telling the truth. Trustworthy leaders not only tell the truth, but they’re honest without spinning the truth. Spinning the truth is really mis-characterizing the facts of a situation in order to make yourself or the organization look good or attempting to influence people to interpret the truth in the way you want them to. Many people view integrity as the heart of trust, and if leaders are not honest, they have virtually no chance to win the trust of their followers.
When leaders are trusted by their followers, anything is possible. Research has consistently shown that high trust leaders have teams that are more productive, innovative, and have higher levels of engagement. The best way to build trust is to avoid breaking it in the first place, and to do that we have to quit sabotaging ourselves by acting in ways that undermine trust.