How to rebuild trust in your leadership

23 Jul 2019 By Kate Cooper

When a team has lost faith in its manager, is there any way to win people round? Kate Cooper reports

People usually make decisions about someone’s trustworthiness based on a series of interactions over time, although one action may lead us to consider someone as ‘untrustworthy’.

The Institute of Leadership & Management published research in 2016 that highlighted how we expect our managers to match their actions to their words and not to have favourites or put their own self-interest above others. 

The research also revealed how closely we watch our managers and how we are disappointed when they fall short of our expectations. Building trust frequently takes time but a single incident – when a manager behaves without integrity, goes back on their word or doesn’t support a team member – may very quickly erode that trust. As with many relationships, that trust can be repaired and rebuilt in time. And in situations where trust is low, the main responsibility for rebuilding this trust lies with the manager.

Feeling trusted will certainly contribute to how well you trust your manager. Sometimes, the best way of building a trusting relationship with a member of your team is by asking them how they like to be managed. A conversation that begins: ‘What style of management would help you to do your best work?’ offers useful insights into what they understand trust to be. 

Some people don’t mind an element of micro-management, because it provides the opportunity to show what they’ve achieved or offers reassurance if they lack confidence. Others experience micro-management as being ‘checked up on’ and not trusted. If you demonstrate a willingness to adapt your style to what works best for the employee, you’re much more likely to build a trusting relationship than if you just impose what works best for you. 

As with new customers, new employees are often a focus of attention. New personnel are included in induction programmes and onboarding activities. Although there is no substitute for getting off to a good start, it’s important to keep checking in with longer-standing employees and asking again what their expectations of you are. Unresolved misunderstandings can reduce trust and may linger for years. A timely conversation might not only immediately improve the situation but also encourage both parties to speak more openly in the future. 

People’s circumstances and priorities change over time, and they might want something different from their relationship with work as their lives and careers develop. Being interested in those priorities and exploring what you can do as a manager to support changes is a clear signal that you have the interest of the employee at heart. Being able to effect changes, however small, to support new ambitions and offer more flexible working, will demonstrate that you follow up your words with actions – you can be trusted. 

Cynicism is often high when trust is low. It takes a degree of courage to challenge negative views that may not have any evidence to support them but, left unchallenged, are a real impediment to creating a more trusting environment. Our research indicated that older employees demonstrate declining levels of trust, and longer working lives mean that more effort is needed to engage and involve them. This group is often denied training and development opportunities, so making them available could revitalise the relationship. Investing in people’s development shows you believe in them and see them as part of the future. Having a shared vision builds trust.

It may be a longer road to rebuild trust than the road you took to the issue that destroyed it in the first place – but showing a genuine willingness to repair broken relationships, talking openly about what a trusting environment means to each individual and gaining an appreciation that ‘being trusted’ and ‘trusting’ mean different things to all of us, is a good place to start. 

Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management

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