How to Build Trust if Your Boss Doesn’t

AccountableIn my work with leaders who are trying to build higher trust within their organizations, I often hear mid-managers say, “I really want to build trust, but my boss seems intent on doing things that destroy trust almost daily. How can I be more effective at building trust in my arena when the environment I am working in doesn’t support it?”

This is an interesting conundrum, and yet it is not a hopeless situation. Here are six tips that can help:
1. Recognize you are not alone. Nearly every company today is under extreme pressure, reorganizations and other unpopular actions are common.

There are ways to build and maintain trust, even in draconian times, but the leaders need to be highly skilled and transparent.

Unfortunately, most leaders shoot themselves in the foot when trying to manage in difficult times. During the struggle, they do lasting damage rather than build trust.
If your boss is destroying trust with other people in the organization, chances are the bond of trust between you and your boss needs some work as well.

Let the boss know you are concerned with the level of trust within your own area and ask for his or her assistance in improving the situation. Open up the dialog about trust often, but do so using yourself as the example of the leader trying to improve trust.

This way you get your boss starting to verbalize the things that build higher trust as he or she tries to be a coach for you. This gives you the opportunity to ask some Socratic Questions about how broader application of the ideas might be helpful to the entire organization.

2. Realize that usually you cannot control what goes on at levels above you. My favorite quote for this is “Never wrestle a pig. You get all muddy and the pig loves it.” The best you can do is point out that approaches do exist that can produce a better result.

Suggesting your leader get some outside help and learn how to manage the most difficult situations in ways that do not destroy trust will likely backfire.

Most managers with low Emotional Intelligence have a huge blind spot where they simply do not see that they have a problem.
One suggestion is to request that you and some of your peers go to, or bring in, a leadership trust seminar and request the boss come along as a kind of “coach” for the group.

Another idea is to start a book review lunch club where your peers and the boss can meet once a week to discuss favorite leadership books.
It helps if the boss gets to nominate the first couple books for review. The idea is to get the top leader to engage in dialog on topics of leadership and trust as a participant of a group learning process.

If the boss is especially narcissistic, it is helpful to have an outside facilitator help with the interaction.

The key point here is to not target the boss as the person who needs to be “fixed,” rather view the process as growth for everyone. It will promote dialog and better understanding within the team.

3. Avoid whining about the unfair world above you, because that does not help the people below you feel better (it really just reduces your own credibility), and it annoys your superiors as well. When you make a mistake, admit it and make corrections the best you can.

4. Operate a high trust operation in the environment that you influence. That means being as transparent as possible and reinforcing people when they bring up frustrations or apparent inconsistencies.

This can be tricky because the lack of transparency often takes the form of a gag rule from on high. You may not be able to control transparency as much as you would like.

One idea is to respectfully challenge a gag rule by playing out the scenario with alternate outcomes.

The discussion might sound like this, “I understand the need for secrecy here due to the potential risks, but is it really better to keep mum now and have to finesse the situation in two weeks, or would we be better served being open now even though the news is difficult to hear?”

My observation is that most people respond to difficult news with maturity if they are given information and treated like adults.

If your desire to be more transparent is overruled by the boss, you might ask him or her to tell you the words to use down the line when people ask why they were kept in the dark.

Another tactic is to ask how the boss intends to address the inevitable rumors that will spring up if there is a gag rule.

Keep in mind there are three questions every employee asks of others before trusting them: 1) Are you competent? 2) Do you have integrity? 3) Do you care about me?

5. Lead by example. Even though you are operating in an environment that is not ideal, you can still do a good job of building trust. It may be tricky, but it can be done.

You will be demonstrating that it can be accomplished, which is an effective means to have upper management see and appreciate the benefits of high trust. Tell the boss how you are handling the situation, because that is being transparent with the boss.

6. Be patient and keep smiling; a positive attitude is infectious. Many cultures these days are basically down and morose.

Groups that enjoy high trust are usually upbeat and positive. That is a much better environment to inspire the motivation of everyone in your group.

If your boss is not good at leading in a way that enables trust throughout the organization, you can still help get the benefits of trust if you approach the situation correctly using the six tips above. In doing so, you will be leading from below and helping your organization rise to much higher productivity and employee satisfaction.

8 Responses to How to Build Trust if Your Boss Doesn’t

  1. Tom Brady says:

    This is a very important message. Just because your organizational culture isn’t what you’d like, you have a choice to make for yourself and your team.
    I spent several years “protecting” my VPs from my tyrant boss. As I was developing them, the organization grew and they ended up reporting directly to him. Only one ended up staying very long. She just took on my role of doing her best to protect her team and create their own environment of trust.

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks Tom. I recall a similar experience. It is an interesting dynamic, and I fear it is pretty common.

  2. Trust is often the most keenly felt consequence of an organization’s culture. Few people can experience lack of trust without taking it personally and respond in a way that can help rebuild it. It’s hard not to take these actions or situations personally. And thus, responses to secrecy, blame, undermining, or unethical behavior will tend to increase the rift between members of the organization, beginning a spiral downward, and expand into other areas of the culture.

    These tips are very helpful and remind us to stay professional, treat others the way we want to be treated, and refrain from creating factions of negativity. Others do notice ethical, professional behavior and appreciate the respite from the negativity. It may not be enough to solve the problem, but it is healthy, can get you through a serious situation with the least amount of emotional harm, and allows the greatest potential for you to have a positive influence.

    • trustambassador says:

      Hi Mary. Thanks so much for your comments. It is amazing to witness the difference between a culture where trust is real and a culture where it is a sham. The difference is startling and is almost always a result of the quality of leadership. Would you agree?

      • Yes, leadership is definitely responsible for maintaining the health of the organization. Even an ethical leaders, if she tolerates bad behavior in others is equally responsible for it, and undermines her own leadership by not addressing it directly. It infects the entire organization and is very difficult to repair, even if the culprit is ultimately fired.

        It’s amazing to me how many leaders hang on to the belief that an organization and its performance will not suffer when a group must try and cope with disrespect, bullying and other dysfunctional behaviors. The losses are costly and add up daily, though they are rarely directly attributed to the underlying situation that lead people to take sick days, create duplicate processes and work-arounds to avoid a bad apple, and frequently leave the organization for their emotional and physical health.

  3. Bob Vanourek says:

    Your tips are again right on the money again, Bob. Role modeling the behavior you want to see in others is critical for everyone, which is “leading by example.” As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”

  4. SanTal says:

    It may not be the ideal place, but be the change you want to see! Very well quoted!!

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