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7 Behaviours Employees Need to Observe to Trust their Boss

Over the years, I have worked with many low trust teams to improve their performance.  Repeatedly, I still see well-meaning leaders inadvertently destroy trust in their teams.

Why is this a problem?

Employees believe that trust in leadership is the biggest issue impacting their work performance.

Ignoring trust issues means that businesses are missing out employees on being highly effective in their work.  These include positive employee behaviours such as loyalty, discretionary effort, willingness to change, the ability to innovate and collaborate.  According to Gallup, this is costing Australian business $70 billion a year.

As a leader, if your team members don’t trust you, it will make it much harder to get things done.  Before you automatically assume that your employees do trust you, an astonishing 76% of Australian employees don’t completely trust their leaders (Australasian Leadership Institute).  

Whether you are in your first leadership role, a new team leader in an established or new team, every single employee will be watching you to see whether you will do what you say you will..  In fact, a study by Towers Watson found that it takes seven months on average to build trust.  

Let’s take a look at some of the simple mistakes that leaders often make that destroys trust in their teams and stops team members from contributing to their fullest abilities.

1. People First, Then Results

Every single direct report needs to see evidence that their boss cares about them – that they are willing to support them and understand their challenges.  This means you must be emotionally and physically available when people need help.  It also involves removing roadblocks, providing resources and training.

Surprisingly, a research study found that the number one way employees judge the trustworthiness of their boss is how quickly they respond to their emails.  Leaders who choose to respond within a couple of days subtly tell the sender that their query isn’t important enough or that they don’t respect them.  True or not – perception is reality.  And if people rely on you for advice, decisions or input, then the slower the response the more it disempowers people to do work at a high standard.

But it’s not just email response times that people look out for.  In one organisation I worked with, the team leader would regularly cancel one on one meetings.  The excuse was that they had to do urgent work for the senior leadership team, but all that did was tell team members that senior leaders were more important.

Always ensure that any leadership decision you make, takes your people into account (or provide evidence you went into bat for them).  A common complaint is low trust leaders make decisions that don’t consider how it will impact employees.  Whether you are making a decision as part of a leadership team or deciding on your interactions with direct reports, always ensure you are putting people first and not results.

2. Warm Greetings

This might seem silly, but it’s surprising how often leaders fail to greet people when they start a new work day.  Call me old-fashioned, but common courtesies such as smiling and greeting people go a long way to building trust. 

It doesn’t matter how busy you are.  Say hello.  Be friendly.  Be nice.




3. Understanding your Team’s Unique Challenges

Leaders often assume that they know what their team is going through.  But if you have never been a team member that has done the day to day work, your team members really will judge you on that.  

Take a team I worked with that was part of an Enterprise Project Management Office.  Their new leader had never experienced the gruelling, stressful work of a project management lead.   The leader made all the right noises about understanding the competing demands from different project managers.  Yet, would choose to request work “at the eleventh hour” that would require their direct reports stop work and prioritise their task.  Even if it meant they had to stay back late to get it done. 

Poor consultation and a misunderstanding of tasks creates discomfort and alienation.  If you have never done the daily work of your team, do what you can to spend time with them observing  or even doing what they do.  Not only will they respect you more, but it will reduce the likelihood of making incorrect assumptions about their tasks.  

4. Listening and Taking Action

If there is one thing every single human being wants – it is to be listened to, so that they feel valued and respected.  This is doubly so in the workplace.

Yet, leaders often pay lip service to listening.  While they might organise a meeting to allow people to have their voice heard, their behaviours betray them.  Common complaints are avoiding eye contact when people are speaking, making disinterested “mmm” noises, tapping their fingers or moving on to the next person without acknowledging what had been said.

And even if they do appear to be listening, following up needs to be made a priority.  Yet, too often, leaders fail to take action.

Always make sure you give people eye contact during discussions, ask questions to show interest, confirm information and try not to cut people off mid sentence.  Then, follow up and do what you promised.   Just remember you can never follow up too much!

5. Open to Difficult Conversations

Following on from listening to people, is actually acknowledging what they have to say, no matter how confronting.   And not dismissing it.

In a low trust culture, people are often fearful about speaking up.  People will gossip for years about ex-employees who spoke their mind only to be promptly dismissed never to be seen or heard of again.  These stories become part of the cultural folklore that keeps well-meaning employees afraid of speaking the truth.  Fear pushes important information underground, so that leaders are often the last ones to find out about big issues.

Avoid being defensive when people challenge you.  Never dismiss issues or tell untruths about the future.  If you can’t tell people confidential information, it’s better to say that than to deny what you do know.  And remember, you can’t fix a problem if you’re not talking about it.  Do what you can to be someone that your direct reports confide in.

A typical example is when people leave your organisation.  Talk openly about why they left – did they resign or were they dismissed?  If people think they were fired, it creates unease and uncertainty.  Make sure you don’t avoid difficult conversations because it makes you feel uncomfortable.  Be careful about leading in a way that placates your needs but makes others frustrated.  This leads me to the next point.

6. Putting Team Interests First

Leaders who put their own interests first and not the team’s risk destroying trust pretty quickly.  Your direct reports will make the decision to trust you based on how much you are helping them succeed in their career (and even their personal life).  They need to see that you back them, before they are willing to go the extra mile.

Do what you can to prioritise time with your direct reports – in weekly team meetings (must be efficient and not time wasting), regular one on ones and just setting aside time each week when you’re available for drop ins.  Introducing more social events also goes a long way to demonstrating that you intend to be more inclusive and supportive of your team members.

For stressful job roles, your team members will really want you to be available at least 60-70% of the time each week for them.  In organisations, where leaders are mostly measured on operational KPIs and delivery, work needs to be done to ensure leaders have enough time to spend with their people.  Otherwise, teams will resent that their team leader has no time for them and will feel unappreciated and disconnected from the company’s goals.

7. Communicating an Inspiring Vision

Every employee wants to know that their organisation is doing well and that they are part of the forward momentum.  But when leaders fail to inspire people with an exciting vision, it’s amazing how often gossip and a lack of accountability sets in.  

According to social psychology research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we need external goals and feedback.  When external input is lacking, attention begins to wander and thoughts become chaotic.

People look to their leaders to help with with goals, direction and a purpose. They want to feel that they work that they are doing is appreciated and that it has meaning.

Do what you can to emotionally connect people to the work they are doing.  Take time to explain the importance of the work being done. How it will be used?  And how it will contribute to the success of the company or client?

Being a High-Trust Leader

Being a leader means that you are constantly being watched by your direct reports.  They look to you as to what behaviours are acceptable in the organisation.  Always ensure you are modelling positive behaviours that will get the best out of your team and create a thriving, enjoyable environment.

Remember, that the driving factor behind creating high performing workplaces is to actually improve the trust levels between leaders and employees and between the organisation and employees at large.  It is crucial for leaders at all levels within an organisation to develop a better understanding of trust and of how to manage it.

Do what you can to build trust quickly with your direct reports.  And if your organisational demands you act in ways that destroy trust (such as not having much time available for your people), then it is important that you do what you can to change the situation.  The good news is not only will your people love it and follow you in a heartbeat, but it will improve your team results and job satisfaction.

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