Every Leader’s Nightmare: “I Don’t Trust You”


Blog by Benjamin Martin

I hate to admit it, but unfortunately, as a leader, I know what the words “I don’t trust you” sound like. Perhaps the most frustrating part for me at the time I heard this, was that I didn’t know exactly what I did to earn this statement from the individual. I spent countless hours second-guessing myself, asking for other’s opinions and trying to find a way to reconnect with this person to get us back on track.

Worse yet, with each day, the distance between us seemed to grow larger and increasingly polarized our team. Our duty as leaders demands that we hold these types of events in private on behalf of the employee while we work through them – even if that person is willing to share their version of events. I heard things about myself that didn’t even remotely resemble what was happening and watched as previously healthy relationships suffered.

It left me wondering…am I even a leader? If so, am I a bad one?

I don’t believe that bad leaders are a systemic problem in most organizations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying bad leaders don’t exist. I’ve seen and know first-hand how infuriating it is to watch a person in a position of formal influence neglect those in their care – seemingly inconvenienced by having to work with people.

Bad leaders are also great at generating negative press which unfortunately employees are quick to spread; which is why it might seem like there are more bad than good ones. However, I don’t believe that to be true in my organization, and it’s probably not true in yours either.

Trust is often the determining factor in whether we believe someone is a good or bad leader. Trust is like any crop – it grows organically but someone must first decide to plant the seed. Not understanding how to build trust could be the very thing messing up your chances of being an effective leader. To grow anything, the farmer, like the leader, must be intentional about cultivating what he or she hopes to grow, i.e. trust. Unfortunately, too many leaders simply show up expecting that trust will have grown all by itself – only to find weeds in their gardens.

The mistake leaders can make is that they think their rank gives them the right to demand trust from their people. They spend too much time figuring out how to get it, rather than focusing on how to show trust in others. Compounding the issue of trust, is the fact that while it takes time to cultivate, it is much more easily destroyed—especially by pests (such as those found in the rumor mill).

The following are ways leaders can choose to give trust to their teams in hopes of reaping it in return:

  • Offer Assignments that Challenge Employees. When leaders assign employees tasks that reasonably challenge them, especially if it’s something they are interested in or seeking, such as a promotion, it shows trust. Often such an assignment requires a significant investment of time on behalf of the leader to supervise (but not micromanage) the employee as they work through this task. While it’s probably faster if the leader just does the task themselves, helping the employee figure it out both shows and builds trust. If you can think back to the first time someone approached you with an offer that seem catered to helping you grow, then you’ll remember how much you appreciated it and how it earned that leader trust.
  • Give More Trust When Things Are Going Badly. It sounds counterintuitive, but when things are going badly, leaders need to find ways to give out more trust. Often employees will at least have an idea of what’s going wrong and have an opinion on how to fix it. Not all problems can be fixed, nor all companies saved, but, at the precipice of failure, soliciting input from team members is a way to help keep the team together and on task.
  • Engage Employees Who Disagree. When we disagree with someone who works for us, our tendency as leaders is to trust them less. Instead of offering them more opportunity to understand our perspective, we punish their challenges to our titles by isolating them from projects, communication, or even the team. However, when most employees challenge us, it’s because we aren’t fully engaging them. As leaders, we aren’t delivering what they need to feel successful. While there are moments when employees are acting out because they don’t fit in with the company’s values and mission, most employees are either acting out because of a problem they’re facing at home or they’re not reacting well to changes at work that threaten previously built trust.

My experience is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about leaders supporting leaders. Unfortunately, I know what it feels like to lose a crop of trust (employee), then a whole farm (team), and eventually have to move because I was unable to fix the toxic pH of the environment I was responsible for maintaining.

I’ve learned an incredible amount over the last six years on how to better cultivate trust and remove the barriers that stand in the way of creating it. This article is but just a few of the things that time has shown me. Now seems a good a time as any to remind you if you are still reading this:

Leaders reap the qualities and performance in their teams that they take the time to sow. Trust is but one example of such an attribute. If you don’t feel that you are harvesting any positive qualities or performances from your team, then you should closely examine the efforts you are taking to cultivate them. How could you expect your team to do anything consistently, willingly, or risk going beyond what is expected if you as the leader are not first willing to do it yourself.

About the Author

Benjamin Martin is a Lieutenant with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He has over sixteen years in public safety and speaks throughout the country on leadership. He has written leadership articles for Fire Engineering, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife.

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