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A Leader's Nightmare: "I don't trust you"

I hate to admit it, but unfortunately, as a leader, I know what the words I don’t trust you sound like. Perhaps the most frustrating part for me at the time was that I didn’t know exactly what I did at the time to earn this statement. I spent countless hours second-guessing myself, asking other’s opinions, and trying to find a way to reconnect with this person to get us back on track.


But in searching for answers I found none.  Each day the distance between us seemed to grow larger, and unfortunately, it increasingly polarized our team. What made it feel even worse at the time was that professionally I couldn’t talk about it when confronted with a rumor.  Our duty as leaders demands that we hold these types of events in private on behalf of the employee while we work through them, even if the person we supervise is willing to share their version of events.  I heard things about myself, that didn’t even remotely begin to resemble what was actually happening.  I watched as previously healthy relationships suffered because of rumors.  


It left me wondering…am I even a leader? If so, am I a bad one?


I don’t believe that bad leaders are a systemic problem in most organizations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying bad leaders don’t exist.  I’ve seen and know first-hand how infuriating it is to watch a person in a position of formal influence neglect those in his care—seemingly inconvenienced by having to work with people.  But I’ve also personally had the opportunity to work with, observe, and talk with many incredible leaders who give and give from a seemingly never-ending supply of opportunity for others.  Bad leaders are great at generating negative press which unfortunately employees are quick to spread, and this is why at times it might seem as though we might have so many more bad ones than good ones.  But I don’t believe that to be true in my organization, and it’s probably not true in yours either. 



Trust is an attribute which often is the determining factor in whether we believe someone is a good or bad leader. Bad leaders are often plagued from not having earned trust from their teams.  But it’s also equally as likely that they are guilty of not having focused on showing it to their teams enough before expecting it in return. Trust is like any crop—it happens organically but someone must first decide to plant a seed before anything else will grow.  Think about this for more than a second, because not understanding this could be the very thing messing up your chances of being an effective leader. In order to have a possibility of growing anything, the farmer, like the leader, must be intentional about giving time to cultivate what he or she hopes to grow, i.e. trust.  But too many leaders simply show up expecting that trust will have grown all by itself only to find weeds in their gardens.


The mistake leaders can make is that they think their ranks gives them the right to demand trust from their people. They spend too much of their time figuring out how to get it, rather than focusing on how to show it to others. Compounding the issue of trust is the fact that while it takes time to cultivate, it is much more easily destroyed—especially by pests (such as those found in the rumor mill).



The following are ways leaders can choose to give trust to our teams in hopes of reaping it in return: 


  • When leaders are able to provide employees assignments that will challenge them, especially when it offers a glimpse of something they are interested in and seeking, such as a promotion or career development, it shows that we trust them.  Often such an assignment will require a significant investment of time to help supervise (but not micromanage) the employee as he or she works through the task that’s been given them.  It’s probably faster if the leader just does the task themselves, but that’s not the point.  If you can think back to the first time someone approached you with an offer that seem catered to helping you grow, then you’ll remember how much you appreciated it and how it earned that leader trust.  Helping the employee figure it out both shows and builds trust.


  • It sounds counterintuitive, but when things are going bad leaders need to find ways to give out more trust as opposed to less.  Think about a company whose culture is unhealthy.  Are you picturing a boss running around saying something to the effect of “if you guys would just trust that I know what I’m doing I could fix this place and help you!”  What he really should be saying is, “what opportunities can I provide you to help me fix this, which will help create/restore trust between us”.   Often employees will have an idea of what’s going wrong, and most likely have at least an opinion on how to fix it (often even a solution).  Not all problems can be fixed and all companies saved.   But, at the precipice of failure, soliciting input from our team members is a way to help keep the team together and on task.


  • When we disagree with someone who works for us our tendency as leaders is to trust them less, rather than more.  Instead of offering them more opportunity to gain an understanding of our perspective, we punish their challenges to our title and positions by choosing to isolate them from projects, communication, or even their team. When most employees challenge us it’s because it typically is because as leaders we aren’t fully engaging them--we are not delivering what they need to feel successful.  There are moments in which employees are acting out because they don’t actually fit in with the company’s values and mission, and these bad hires should be escorted out quickly.  But most of the time employees are either acting on a problem that is facing them at home or they are not reacting well with changes at work that threaten the trust they have been previously shown.


This experience is one of the reasons that I have become so passionate about the idea of leaders supporting leaders.  Unfortunately, I know what it feels like to first lose a crop of trust (employee), then a whole farm (team), and eventually have to move because I was unable to fix the toxic pH of the soil I was responsible for farming as a leader.  I’ve learned an incredible amount over the last six years on how to better cultivate trust and remove the barriers that stand in the way of creating it.  This article is but just a few of the things that time has offered me the chance perspective of seeing.  Now seems a good a time as any to remind you if you are still reading this:


            Leaders reap the qualities and performance of their teams that they take the time to sow. Trust is but one example of such an attribute. If you don’t feel that you are harvesting any positive qualities or performances from your team, then you should closely examine the efforts you are taking to cultivate them.  How could you expect your team to do anything consistently, willingly, or risk going beyond what is expected if you as the leader are not first willing to do it yourself?!  





Bio: Benjamin Martin is a Lieutenant with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He has over sixteen years in public safety and speaks throughout the country on leadership.   He has written leadership articles for Fire Engineering, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife.  



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Comment by Scott Ferguson on May 29, 2018 at 4:10pm

...appreciate the courage it took to write the article.

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