Five steps to take if you’re in the uncomfortable position of not trusting one of your employees.
(Originally published in HBR. Image: Compassionate Eye Foundation/Martin Barraud/OJO Images Ltd/Getty Images)
Trust is one of the most essential forms of capital a leader can have. When employees trust their leaders, it unleashes higher performance. Employees are more engaged, productive, and innovative. They experience lower levels of stress and burnout and are more likely to stay in their jobs. Good leaders understand these benefits and actively work to earn and develop the trust of their team members and colleagues.
But sometimes, a lack of trust flows in the opposite direction, and leaders find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of distrusting someone on their team.
In this unique age of remote and hybrid work, it’s perhaps no surprise that a scarcity of trust among leaders for their employees is now at an all-time high, a perspective confirmed in the recently published Microsoft Work Trends Index. Lack of trust in an employee leads to troublesome outcomes. It can cause leaders to feel anxious and frustrated, hesitant to delegate, and prone to micromanaging. Unfortunately, the adverse effects of leader distrust can also extend beyond the specific leader-employee relationship, stealthily diminishing innovation, morale, and performance of the broader team.
Steps to Take When You Don’t Trust Your Employee
Two-way trust is paramount to a healthy and productive leader-employee relationship. If you find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of distrusting a team member, here are five steps to help you address the issue and move forward.
1. Pinpoint the source of your distrust.
We often hear (and make!) comments like “I don’t trust them” or “They aren’t trustworthy.” We talk about trust in all-or-nothing terms, but trust is not some global entity — trust is situation specific. Rarely will you distrust everything about someone. For example, you may trust your team member’s technical expertise but not their ability to present their ideas to clients effectively.
Research shows that trust can be broken down into three components:
Trusting someone’s competence entails having faith in their ability to do the job. Consistency is the belief that the person is reliable — they do what they say they’ll do and perform as expected. Finally, trusting their character is believing that they have integrity and care about others and their needs as well as their own. Like the indispensable legs of a three-legged stool, each component of trust is crucial in a relationship.
To move past the black-and-white impasse of “They aren’t trustworthy,” ask yourself: Which component of trust is lacking here? What exactly did this person do or not do that has led to my distrust? Separate facts from assumptions and focus on specific problematic behaviors.
2. Identify the specific situations or assignments where you are willing to trust them.
Make a list of the areas in which you do trust your employee, and consider how you might incrementally build on these areas in low-risk ways. Here’s how this might look like:
If you trust your employee to communicate effectively within the team, try involving them in cross-functional meetings or broader discussions.
If you trust your employee’s technical skills, try having them mentor a newer team member or guide them through a complex task.
If you trust your employee’s problem-solving abilities, try assigning increasingly complex tasks or providing more autonomy in tackling problems and coming up with their own solutions.
Focus on clear and frequent communication as you delegate and build on their tasks and responsibilities. Communicate the purpose and desired outcome of the task, your specific expectations and standards, deadlines, and their level of authority in making task-related decisions.
It’s also important to maintain regular one-on-one check-ins to ensure you remain aligned, offer the right amount of support, and create trust. To reduce hesitation in approaching you between these regularly scheduled meetings, share that you have an “open-door” policy.
When we feel like we can’t trust someone, we fear what might happen if we extend our trust, which often leads to more widespread micromanagement. So it’s critical that you give this person the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness. Excessive control and scrutiny will likely reduce their motivation, productivity, and feelings of ownership, which could result in behaviors that further erode your trust.
3. Provide feedback on the specific behaviors that are leading to your distrust.
Recall which of the three components of trust is low (competency, consistency, and character) and specify the behaviors that have degraded your trust. For example, let’s say you identified that the source of your distrust is a lack of consistency. What exact behaviors have you observed that make you feel you can’t rely on them? Missed deadlines, failure to follow through on a stated commitment, or failure to respond to you in a reasonable amount of time?
Provide descriptive and specific feedback on the problematic behaviors, describe the resulting negative impact, and align on moving forward productively. For example, you might say, “For the last two weeks, you’ve missed the weekly project status report deadline. Consequently, I haven’t been able to provide a complete project update to the executive team. Can we discuss what’s causing the delay and create a plan to rectify the situation?”
High-quality feedback strengthens relationships with your team member and builds trust. Remember that no one considers themselves untrustworthy, so avoid using the “trust” word during your conversation.
4. Reflect on what you might be doing (or not doing) to contribute to the situation.
Each person shapes a relationship’s dynamics and outcomes, so it’s essential to consider your role in the current situation. Trust can erode when employees don’t have a clear understanding of their roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Is it possible that you haven’t provided sufficient clarity or guidance?
Trust is inherently reciprocal. In other words, the more someone trusts you, the more likely you are to trust them in return. As such, try boosting trust in this relationship by shifting your focus away from what this person needs to do to regain your confidence to how you might signal your own trustworthiness. Again, recall the three components of trust. How might you demonstrate your judgment and expertise, integrity and care for them, and your dependability? For example, could you show your character by being honest, transparent, and accountable for a recent mistake?
Also, consider whether a lack of visibility might be contributing to your distrust. With sparser in-person interactions, there’s more room to make negative and baseless assumptions about others. Would scheduling more face-to-face time with this person be helpful? Alternatively, do you need to let go of “seeing” them work and focus on impact instead?
5. Ask yourself whether the breach of trust is irreparable.
While trust is a tangible asset you can create in a relationship, sometimes a situation is severely beyond repair; for example, discovering that your team member has lied, breached confidentiality, or engaged in deeply disrespectful behavior. If a team member has crossed certain boundaries, the right course of action — for the integrity of your leadership and the health of your team — might be to trigger an immediate investigation or consider dismissal.
This unfortunate situation can also develop when the behavior is less severe, but your dedicated trust-building efforts haven’t led to improvement. In these cases, consulting with HR and considering parting ways may also be warranted.
Bi-directional trust is a fundamental aspect of a healthy-employee relationship; without it, the leader, the employee, and the broader team suffer. Create a plan based on the steps outlined above, give it time, and know that trust can be rebuilt in most cases, leading to a happier, more productive workplace for all.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina