5 Ways Leaders Unintentionally Undermine Trust

May 22, 2013 — Leave A Comment


“Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing.” ~ Saint Augustine

As I mentioned in last week’s post, a leader’s blindspots are her worst enemies. After all, its the obstacle you can’t see that’s most likely to take you out.

Continuing along the same line, I thought I’d share five common behaviors I see leaders do that undermine their team’s trust. Keep in mind that these are blind-spot behaviors for most leaders ~ that is, they do them innocently, and do not realize the impact they have on the team’s trust.

1. Show up late. Leaders are notoriously over-scheduled, and often crunch meetings back to back to back throughout the day with no breathing room between. The inevitable effect is that leaders are often late to meetings with their team. One leader I know came to a meeting almost 10 minutes late and declared, “Sorry I’m late, but it was important!” You can almost hear the “…and you’re not!” at the end of that statement, can’t you? Showing up late conveys the unintended message of “My time is more valuable than yours. My work is more important than yours. You are here to serve me, not the other way around.”

Simple solution: Build in 10-15 minute breaks between every meeting of the day. Show up on time. And when you can’t, text or call ahead to let folks know when you’ll arrive.

2. Make a joke at a team member’s expense. Humor is great on a team. Sarcastic humor is not. Ever. Even if team members say it doesn’t affect them, don’t believe it. As someone in a position of authority over others, your words carry more weight than they would if you were “just friends.” Making fun of someone on your team, even in a lighthearted way, often has the subtle effect of causing them to doubt your trust in them, which in turn makes them unsure they can trust you.

Simple solution: Ban mocking humor from your conversations with team members. Instead, why not toss out a word of gratitude or encouragement? “So thankful for you!” or “I know you’ll do great.” Easy.

3. Never be vulnerable. Leaders sometimes have this mistaken idea that leadership is about always being in control and knowing all the answers. But when does a ship most need its captain ~ when seas are calm, or when a tempest throws everything into chaos? An effective leader doesn’t have to always be in control or know the right answer in order to lead greatly. The leader’s job is not to know the answers. His job is to lead. Those are not the same thing. Think of a group of people lost in the wilderness trying to find the way out. They still need a leader, and she doesn’t have to know the way out to lead them well.

All that to say, when leaders refuse to admit their weakness and confusion to those they lead, they (of necessity) put up a false front. They fake it. And despite what they think, their people can tell they are faking it. Leading from a false front or facade is a form of lying, and lying undermines trust.

Simple solution: Don’t hide. Show your weakness. Practice transparency. And keep leading.

4. Never let other people’s ideas win out over yours. Leaders who believe their idea is always the best one in the room don’t need a team. They need minions ~ mindless thralls to carry out their bidding. And nobody likes being somebody else’s minion. In creative meetings, if your ideas always win, your team will start to feel you don’t really value the creativity and brilliance they have to offer. And they will lose faith in you.

Simple solution: Regularly let other people’s good ideas win out over yours. The net result over time will be better for everyone ~ including you.

5. Don’t allow people to fail. Some leaders can’t be with failure. They hate failure. They’ll do anything to avoid failure. One effect of this is they can’t let other people fail either. So they’ll give team members authority over a project only to step in at the last moment and “rescue” them if they fear the project might fail.

But failure is an essential part of all creative work. It’s also an essential part of all effective leadership development. If you can’t let people fail, you can’t develop them as leaders. And if you give people authority only to yank it back when failure threatens, you convey to your team that you don’t actually trust them to do the job, and that the project is more important to you than they are.

Simple solution: Believe in your people. Let them stretch. Let them fail. Don’t rescue. Then capture the learning to do it better next time. (Also, when the failure happens, notice that the world did not, in fact, slip off its axis.)

Those are my five. What other trust-busting behaviors should be on this list? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Michael Warden

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