If leaders want to be trusted, they need to trust their teams

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In 2022, according to Gallup, only 20% of workers strongly agreed with the statement “I trust the leadership of this organization,” a 4% drop from 2019, and although in 2023 this figure had risen to 23% we still aren’t where we should be.

When I first started speaking to audiences in 2010 about trust as a keynote speaker on the future of work, I talked about how to become trustworthy. It was a different time. Today, your willingness to trust others is, if anything, more important.

Sometimes, after a speech, an audience member will come up to me and tell me that they agree with everything I said. They will add that they are pleased that so-and-so particular person heard it too because they need to change!

Here’s what I think when I’m told that—You’ve been thinking about what everyone else needs to do differently, not what you need to do differently. The problem with that is we cannot make others change. We might be able to give feedback and that feedback might go in, but it’s easy to see all the things other people must do. It’s much harder to look inside ourselves and ask, What is the part I play in perpetuating this issue? That’s the only element we have total control over—our own attitudes and behaviors. We think others should go through the discomfort of change but we are not willing to go through the discomfort of change ourselves.

There are myriad ways we put limits on our willingness to trust. We say we trust, but we step in and make decisions for others. We say we trust, but we want to see all expenses claims more than 100 pounds (roughly $124). We say we trust, but we want final sign-off of anything that’s going to senior management. We say we trust, but we arrange constant update meetings so we can see exactly what is going on at all times.

What if you trusted? What if you believed people weren’t trying to get away with anything? What if you believed the people you worked with cared as much as you about doing a good job?

That would mean that if someone made a mistake, your assumption wouldn’t be “What an idiot, give that to me.” It would be curiosity. What information was unavailable to them that would have been valuable? What support could I have offered (without doing the job for them) to help them get it right? What did they learn about the barriers they encountered which will enable them to get a better outcome next time? What stopped them from seeking my input? Do they trust me?

When Ricardo Semler was CEO of Semco, a Brazilian business well known, in part, because it has almost no rules, he began questioning everything. His father had a more conventional style of leadership, but when Semler took over he began to ask some questions. Why do we need an office? Isn’t that just our ego? Why do we interview people the way we do? Shouldn’t they check us out before believing our hype about ourselves? Why shouldn’t people set their own salaries? He describes this as “looking for wisdom,” and it is based on a fundamental belief that people can be trusted.

Early on, some employees took advantage of these freedoms—stealing tools and keeping them at home for instance—but when they realized that they could take tools when they needed them without being frisked at the door, as happened in Semler’s father’s day, and simply return them and borrow them again if and when they needed them, no questions asked, there was no reason to steal.

Take a look at the limits you put on your willingness to trust. Those are the limits people put on their willingness to trust you. Find ways to extend those limits until trust is baked into your culture.

It can be difficult to figure out whether you have a trust problem because issues with trust don’t present as issues with trust. People don’t walk around telling you they don’t trust you, and you may believe you do trust them.

The shift here starts with trusting others. Don’t start by trying to get others to trust you. How can you expect them to do something you aren’t willing to do? Besides, they’ve learnt not to trust you because of the way you’ve behaved until now. They can’t just switch trust back on.

Start by treating them like you trust them. This is an important distinction. Right now, you don’t trust them. No one can force you to trust, and you have no reason to believe they can be trusted, yet, but you can treat people like you trust them.

Don’t step in and make decisions for people or come up with the answers. Refuse to be the answers person, and become the questions person instead. Coach and mentor people to make their own decisions (even if those decisions are different to the decision you would have made).

Share information. Even the sensitive stuff. Not trusting that people can handle complexity or difficult messages is another way we demonstrate we don’t trust.

Let people make mistakes. Obviously, there might be some accountabilities that should sit with you. But not everything! Let people sit with the discomfort of getting it wrong, help them learn from that, and then support them trying again.

You can ask yourself, If I did trust them, what would I do now?; If I did trust them, how would I get out of their way?; or If I did trust them what would my role be? In time, once they start to see that you trust them, you can demonstrate the ways you are worthy of their trust. They will be more open to seeing you as a human, making authentic human connections with you, and recognizing the ways you stand for what you believe.

You’ll have to show you trust them before they will notice how hard you’ve been working to prove you are worthy of their trust.


Excerpted and adapted with permission from Punks in Suits by Blaire Palmer.

Blaire Palmer is a former BBC journalist turned keynote speaker on the future of leadership and work, who has worked on flagship Radio 4 programs like Today and Woman’s Hour. For the past 24 years, Blaire has worked with organizations helping to drive real change in their businesses and create places where people can come and do their best work. Currently, Blaire speaks internationally at conferences and events, calling on audiences of senior leaders to rethink what leadership means in the modern era. Her new book, Punks in Suits, is a call to arms for leaders to embrace change and a practical guide offering clarity on the most pertinent workplace challenges of the modern era.



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