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Eight Mistakes Leaders Make That Kill Employee Trust (and Block Speed, Innovation and Growth)

Do people in your organization trust their leaders and each other? If not, there's a good chance you don't have the speed, agility and adaptability you need to compete in today’s volatile business climate. Amanda Setili lays out some common mistakes leaders make that squelch trust, generate fear and ultimately slow your company down.

We live and work in an age of disruption and relentless change. Companies must be fast, adaptable, agile and courageous to compete. This requires the presence of a deeply important quality: trust.

While trust has always been an essential element in business, it's more important now than ever before. Why? Because without trust, you will never create the deep engagement and sense of safety people need to take risks, disagree and innovate.

An organization without trust is inefficient and is often stagnant. It experiences many stops and starts, as people wait for the approvals they need and verify that others have done what they said they were going to do. People fear being the one to bring the ‘bad news.’ Problems fester and grow, rather than being promptly addressed. Leaders fear taking the risk to move to something new.

All of this results in a sluggish pace and an unhealthy attachment to old business models that can kill a company in today’s economy.

Trust, essentially, is the willingness to put oneself at risk based on another individual’s actions. As I discuss in my book Fearless Growth, employees must be able to trust leaders – and vice versa – as well as each other. Trust must permeate the entire culture. And because trust begins with leaders, it’s important to make sure we’re not inadvertently doing things to squelch its presence.

Below are eight, common, trust-squashing mistakes leaders make.

Mistake #1: Avoiding conflict. In all areas of life, conflict happens. In any organization, people are going to disagree on the best way to do things. Tough decisions must be made, which inevitably will make some people happy and others unhappy. From time to time, “bad apples” will crop up that need to be dealt with. If you’re a leader who avoids conflict at all costs, transparent communication can’t occur, productivity falters as decisions take forever to be made, high performers get fed up and leave and in general, you’re seen as weak or wishy-washy.

Trust can’t flourish in a workplace where leaders perpetually avoid conflict. It’s important to come to the understanding that conflict isn’t ‘bad.’ In fact, it’s an essential component of innovation, problem-solving, and growth.

Mistake #2: Focusing on compliance, rather than achieving shared goals. Earlier this year, United Airlines aggressively removed a passenger from an aircraft, causing a publicity and legal disaster, partly because United employees have been taught to follow the rules to the letter. Emphasis on rigid rule-following can be dangerous. Better to make the end goal crystal clear to everyone and then trust employees to do the right thing.

“If the airline had trusted its own employees to make decisions and had given them the flexibility to do what's right for the customer, the incident may have been avoided. Plus, focusing on the end goal provides employees more leeway to adapt in an agile way to changing business conditions.

Mistake #3: Keeping your weaknesses a secret. It's tempting (and human) to try to cover up or at least minimize our own shortcomings and mistakes. We should be doing the exact opposite. The best leaders are those who realize ­– and are willing to admit – that they don’t know it all and aren’t “the best” at everything. Plus, people appreciate vulnerability. Not only does revealing our weaknesses make people like and trust you more, it lets them know upfront what to expect, so they can act accordingly.

I was once on a team with a man who confessed that while he was superb at ideation and a master of marketing, the operational side of things was not his strength. He built trust by revealing his weaknesses. Plus, his revelation made the team stronger, because we all knew how to make the best use of his skills.

Mistake #4: Not asking for help. When things go wrong, your impulse may be to keep information to yourself, hoping the problem will go away. This not only damages trust, it vastly reduces the chances that the problem will be resolved quickly, since problems swept under the rug tend to get worse, not better.

Better to tell it like it is. Just say, “I’ve got some bad news to share.” (You may actually feel a surge of relief just to have said the words.) Then explain what the problem is and suggest two or more alternative actions that might be taken to address it.

Jack, the manager of a customer support center, noticed that post-call survey results had plummeted. He knew that several important customer accounts were at risk of defecting. Rather than trying to fix the problem on his own, he brought it up with his peers at the management meeting the next day.

“We’ve got a problem,” he said, “but I think it's isolated to customers calling in about our newest product. The procedures for setup and configuration are incomprehensible to both reps and customers. I see two ways to resolve this. We can either stay late the next few nights and rewrite the procedures, or we can ask the product management team if they’d be willing to field calls about this product until they can get the procedures rewritten. I'm open to any other ideas anyone has as well.”

The team appreciated that Jack was upfront with them and asked for help. They were happy to pitch in to fix the problem. And not only did his transparency on the issue bolster their trust in him, it showed them that he trusted them as well and valued their input.

Mistake #5: Under-communicating. In times of uncertainty, it especially is important to communicate. Don’t leave people hanging. Where there is a communication void, people will fill it with the worst possible scenario. It’s just human nature. It’s always better to tell the truth – even when it’s bad news – than to be evasive or silent. (And the news almost certainly isn’t as bad as what they’re imagining.) 

Years ago, the manager of the Kimberly-Clark manufacturing facility where I worked announced to all employees that there was a risk of future layoffs. He explained that while the layoffs were not a sure thing, there was a chance that there would be a workforce reduction. In the end, no layoff occurred, but he had done the right thing by revealing all that he knew. By being straight with people, he built trust and allowed them to make the best choices for themselves and their families.

Mistake #6. Not doing what you say you’re going to do. This is basic, yet many leaders break their promises as a matter of course. This can have a devastating effect on trust. Trust builds slowly over time, and it takes only one broken promise to lose all the ground you've gained.

If you promise an employee you’ll provide the resources she needs to get a project done, and then you leave her in the lurch, why should she work hard for you in the future?. She won’t. Employees trust us when we act predictably and consistently with what we promise. Think carefully before you make a promise, because it’s crucial that you fulfill it, or at least communicate why you are no longer able to do so.

Mistake #7: Believing lack of trust results from a character flaw. Because we all want people to trust us, we feel threatened and ashamed when there is evidence that they do not. As a result, we avoid discussing the subject altogether.

We certainly don’t explore what we can do to build trust. Lack of trust is not an indictment on your character but rather a simple fact. If we can learn to see the problem objectively, we can take steps to remedy it.

Lisa, a product manager for a software firm, shared: “I’ll never forget the time a coworker, Ryan, said, ‘I don't trust you,’ to me. I felt terrible and wanted to slink away.”

Instead, she took a deep breath and asked him to explain. He said his trust had been damaged by the fact that she had forwarded a report he had drafted on to the boss without checking with him first. He was embarrassed because the report had a few mistakes he had meant to correct. Lisa apologized and took steps to rectify the damage.

Once Lisa and Ryan were able to talk honestly and openly about what was impeding trust, their relationship improved. They now work together more fluidly and efficiently and their joint projects are getting vastly improved results.

Mistake #8: Thinking that trust will occur on its own, without deliberate efforts to cultivate it. Consider this example: An office furniture company was experiencing sales declines, and each team leader blamed the other functions for the problem. The leader had the group spend a morning conducting some simple trust-building exercises. Each team member shared a challenge from their childhood, and others took turns sharing what they appreciated about each other, and what behaviors were getting in the way of success.

One team member was told, “You have an incredible level of creativity, and you always volunteer to help.” A few minutes later, when someone shared some less-positive feedback – You’re so eager to contribute that you overcommit and end up not doing everything you said you would.” ­– he was able to understand why his teammates often had complained about him behind his back. Once the issues were out in the open, everyone was able to work together much more productively, and sales results got back on track. 

This may seem like a simple, even frivolous exercise, but it did wonders to build trust. The moral is simply that this company took action to break the cycle of finger-pointing and distrust. Most companies just hope problems like this get resolved on their own. That seldom happens.

Of course, leaders are only human and none of us are perfect. You almost certainly are going to recognize some of these mistakes in yourself, and that's okay.

We all need to become worthier of the trust of others. Just as every company is on a growth journey, so is every leader and every employee. We all have flaws, but the good news is that when we make a deliberate choice to build trust, our company becomes more successful and a better place to work.

About the author: Amanda Setili, author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets, is president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. An internationally acclaimed expert on strategic agility, she gives her clients – including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, The Home Depot, UPS, and Walmart – unbiased and laser-clear advice on how to respond quickly and intelligently to a changing marketplace. A past employee of McKinsey & Company and Kimberly-Clark, Setili served as an executive with successful disruptive technology startups in the U.S. and Malaysia. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Harvard Business School and has taught as an adjunct professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. To learn more, please visit www.setiliconsulting.com. Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets (Career Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-632-65107-5, $17.99) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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