When You Can’t Trust Your Leadership

In my corporate seminars, I often hear the following:

Love the trust stuff, Charlie, but I can’t take that risk in this organization. Leadership talks a good game, but I don’t always believe them. People have been burned for taking risks around here.

Before I can risk trusting them—how can I assess the risk? How do I know I can trust them?

First, I’ve seen several cases where leadership was genuinely asking people to do right—best long-term, transparent, customer-focused—and the employees were cynical. It wasn’t a leadership problem, but a followership problem.

But never mind: let’s assume your leaders really are not all that trustworthy. What is to be done?

In fact, this is no different from any other trust situation. If both parties sniff around each other, waiting to see who’ll take the first risk, operating from fear and a scarcity mentality—that organization will stay mired in mistrust.

Trust, like tango, takes two. One to trust, another to be trusted. And the roles can flip. It’s often true that “the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

That suggests: if your boss isn’t trustworthy—trust him. Don’t look for a risk management mitigation metric—dive in and trust him.  Embrace the paradox.

This actually works–more often than you might think.  Because most human beings, including most businesspeople, respond favorably to being trusted. They reciprocate. The more genuine the gesture, the more reciprocation.

This feels risky. But despite what Ronald Reagan implied, (trust but verify), there is no trust without risk. The risk taken is what drives the risk reciprocated. Fake-trusting, hedging your bets, installing your safety nets, just inflames the situation.

If you still can’t stomach trusting your untrustworthy boss, then think of it this way. If you avoid your boss–avoid constructively confronting untrustworthy behavior–then you are tacitly accepting it. If you do nothing to mitigate it, you inflame it. Because mistrust is also like tango in taking two: a non-trustworthy person, and someone who avoids confronting him.

If you tolerate untrustworthy behavior, you harm your organization. Which means you are acting against the best interests of your organization. Which means you are as culpable as your boss.

I think this is largely right. Leaders are not solely responsible for trustworthy behavior. Followers have an equal obligation. Their job is to demand trustworthiness, and call it out when it’s not delivered.

A great many leaders would be appalled to find out how feared they really are.  They simply do not have an idea of the effect they are having, and do not intend the results that are resulting.    If told the truth, many of them them would gladly change.

So, who will tell them the simple truth–"Here’s what people are saying.  About you.  And I don’t believe you intend this.  Let’s talk. "  

Try it.  You just might be surprised.