What to do when you don’t trust your team

I have quite a lot of conversations with clients about trusting their teams. In my upcoming book, Emotional Overdraft, ‘Trust’ is one of the ten key drivers I identify as having a detrimental impact on how successfully leaders are able to healthily build and grow their businesses.

There are lots of reasons you might not feel like you can trust your team, but the bottom line is that unless you identify the root cause, you’re going to continue to sweat the small stuff and feel uneasy about letting others get on with their job.

I read a great article in Harvard Business Review recently that identified some of the reasons why you might not trust your team, and what you can do about it. I’ve dropped the key points below.

Recognise yourself?

1. Mismatched Signals

One reason why you might feel uncomfortable, at a gut level, with one of your employees is because of mismatched signals. That gut feeling is driven by various factors and how each of us reacts to those. For example, when someone makes a warm personal disclosure, it often increases the feeling of trust—at least for some people. There are many, many such indicators; here’s a list of some of the most common:

  • Personal disclosure. A warm sharing of personal feelings and experiences.
  • Vulnerability. A willingness to share mistakes, doubts, fears.
  • Loyalty. Demonstrating commitment to the organization and individual people.
  • Inclusive. Including others for input or decision-making.
  • Appreciative. Willing to acknowledge and praise other’s contributions.
  • Open. Easily exploring new ideas and new approaches.
  • Affinity. Having a good bit in common with someone else, sharing similar experiences and interests.

The problem is that the indicators that matter to one person may not matter to someone else. If one of your direct reports shows vulnerability in an attempt to built your trust it might work or it might leave you wondering why they have so many doubts and fears. They are trying to build trust but achieving the opposite. Equally, being inclusive by soliciting opinions can be seen by some as building trust, but for others it signals a lack of ideas or a lack of confidence.

It becomes hard to trust your team when the signals being sent are not the ones that matter to you. And of course the reverse holds—you will have a hard time getting the team to trust you if you send the wrong signals for them.

Crossed signals are a barrier and as a leader you can break down that barrier by learning to frame your team members’ actions in terms of what they intend, not your gut reaction to what they do. If you are not particularly comfortable with personal disclosures from your staff, step back and recognize, “This person is trying to build a closer relationship; it’s not my style but I respect what they are trying to do.”

Another way to get past mismatched signals is to be more transparent with your team. One new leader explained to his team that he did not share a lot of personal information—so they should know that if they asked him personal questions, he would probably just avoid answering them. His disclosure helped the team. While they still prefer to use personal information to build trust, at least they were not interpreting his lack of disclosure as a signal that he disliked them.

2. Mismatched working styles

Mismatched working style is another reason you may not trust your team. Suppose that as a leader you are more comfortable with the detail—you draw conclusions based on the detail, and you like to question the detail. People who have a similar style will have more affinity with you—they will be easier for you to trust. Now, suppose one of your team prefers to engage with you conceptually about a project that’s been entrusted to them. They’ll talk in terms of broad concepts and general principles. You need the details of what is going on. They are trying to show that they know what they are doing. Instead they are just being annoying.

For this kind of mismatch, reframing the person’s action in terms of good intention won’t help much. Again, transparency can help. Explain your preference, help the person understand what you want and why. If they know you want details not the overview (or vice versa) they are more likely to do what they need to earn your trust.

Unfortunately, it’s quite common for managers to work hard at dropping all kinds of hints about what is annoying them only to find that the person blithely carries on with no change. The trouble is that the hints, code words, and vague suggestions are just not understood. When you say, “You tend to be too conceptual in your presentations” it is not entirely clear to them what that means; they might not even clue into the fact that you are making a serious criticism. Even if they do clue in, they may have no idea what to do differently.

Here’s the solution. Feedback needs to be very specific and very behavioral if you want it to work. For example, instead of saying “You focus too much on the big picture” say “I want you to know the key numbers off the top of your head” or “I don’t want you telling me only the conclusion of your analysis, I want you to walk me through the spreadsheet line by line.” Instead of saying “You need to work on engaging stakeholders” say “I recommend you to fly to New York and take him to lunch.”

3. Critical Tasks

Another reason you may not trust one of your team members is because the work really matters to you, you are an expert, and you are just not sure anyone else can do it properly. You know you can do the work faster and more accurately. You may trust the team in some ways, just not their capability to do the work adequately.

The other end of this expertise spectrum is when the work really matters but you don’t have experience in the area and are anxious that you can’t assess their work. Their assurances that “everything’s on track” or “don’t worry, this kind of problem always happen” aren’t enough for you to trust the end result will be good enough.

How do you handle this lingering doubt that your people will deliver without making a futile attempt to micromanage every project? The key is to explicitly identify the factors and metrics that will tell you if the project is on track. For example, is the project hitting its milestones? If yes and you feel the milestones are well planned, then you can trust the team to continue. Or, does what your team tell you about the project jive with what other people in the organization are telling you? The metrics to track vary by project.

There is one additional tip for learning to trust that your team is on track. Sit in on one of your direct report’s team meetings. Is there a two-way discussion or does your employee’s team sit silently through a lecture? Good open communication is a powerful signal that the work is likely to be on track; lack of communication is a warning that your lack of trust may be well founded.

Most of us think about trust as a black and white decision. We trust you or we don’t. In business relationships, trust is rarely so clear cut. I may trust your expertise on a particular topic but not your judgment on hiring or communicating a message to my stakeholders. Rather than black or white, a better approach is to think of trust more like a barometer. Trust goes up and down depending on the circumstances, the task at hand, the political landscape, your sense of security on the issue, and the nature of the relationship. In this way, you think of how to increase trust not necessarily getting to 100% trust. Our natural tendency is to base trust on gut reactions and that’s not good enough to be an effective manager. It’s not that gut reactions don’t matter, but leaders need to be a lot more analytical in how they learn to trust their team. You can’t get rid of all the people whom you don’t fully trust, so you need to get better at identifying and fixing the things that stand in the way of trust.

I hope this is helpful.



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