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.

4 replies
  1. Tammy Lenski
    Tammy Lenski says:

    Charlie, this post really resonated with me. I very much like that you remind us all that trust-building does not begin or end with the leader or manager and that it’s not ok to abdicate responsibility to them.

    I also appreciate your advice, "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." I give uncannily similar advice in my workplace conflict resolution work and for the folks who actually take the leap of faith, the potential payoff is substantial.

    The challenge is always the question, "How do I know my investment in taking the risk won’t come back and smack me upside the head?" That’s fear speaking. But when I help people dissect that fear, there’s often not a lot of substance behind it, just fear itself.

     I wonder how you make it possible for people to take the risk you write about — how do you help them actually take the action?

  2. Rich
    Rich says:

    In the case of my former employer, doing the right thing was a slogan. Employees know their employers better than they know themselves. If you’re in tune with the corporate culture, just nod and smile at the corporate trainer.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Tammy, thanks for the parallel comments.  It makes so much sense that you’d use the same "paradox" approach to workplace conflict.

    Yes, the pushback is always "but you don’t know my ___ ; what if (s)he does ___.

    What I’ve noticed is that people in general overestimate the harm of doing the wrong thing; while they underrate the harm of not doing the right thing.   This is Type 1 and Type 2 error, and it’s well known and studied in psychology classes.

    So yes, it is surprising that people still act against their better interests (and I agree, it’s fear-based thinking at heart that does it).

    Getting people to change fear-based behavior is tough.  I’m no shrink, but what I’ve found works the best (albeit not as much as we’d like) is to phrase things paradoxically, tell stories, and work on real live material using exercises of empathy.

    Teaching "soft" skills to "hard" people is, let us say, not easy.



  4. John
    John says:

    New to this conversation. But my take is to trust until until it’s proven that you can’t. Then you have a choice, you can stay and keep your head down hoping to outlast the scoundrel (rarely have I seen this work without becoming unhealthy) or go find a new place that fits with your goals of a trusting relationship with the boss.

    I have also learned not everyone requires said in relationship. Go figure.


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