Leadership and Trust: 7 Things Bosses Are Doing Wrong

7 Ways Leaders Inadvertently Say, I Don’t Trust You

Effective leadership is based on trust

The importance of trust in leadership cannot be overstated. And yet far too many leaders and managers do things every day, inadvertently, that send the message that they distrust even their best people. This is a leadership weakness that can easily fly under the radar (though it won’t go unnoticed among your employees).

Sapping people’s trust is demotivating — and demotivated people simply don’t do their best work. I’m not suggesting your every decision should be guided by how to motivate staff, but at the same time, it’s critical NOT to demotivate them.

Eliminating inadvertent behaviors that say “I don’t trust you” is a no-cost, high-value way to retain great people — and to increase the odds they will consistently do their best work.

That said, what may not be evident is what you’re doing that’s telegraphing mistrust or doubt.

7 leadership steps to building trust in the workplace

Below are seven areas for you to consider — as well as bite-sized coaching ideas on each one — taken from the pages of my experience as an executive coach, working with many different leaders and organizations.

Assuming one or a number of these may be an issue in your world, ask around, and see if there’s truth to any of them. If so, it probably wouldn’t hurt to try making some changes.

#1: Hovering (being a “helicopter boss”)

Behaviors: Nitpicking; micro-editing; being hyper-vigilant about the details of their work; too-frequent check-ins; and telling, rather than asking or discussing, “better” ways to do what they are doing.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust you to do your job on your own.

Executive coaching bites: If there’s an enduring performance problem, greater vigilance may be necessary. If not — and if you think you may be hovering — ask yourself the appropriate question, depending on your pattern:

  • “If I don’t micro-edit this, can it be good enough?”
  • “What would enable me to experiment with getting out of the details of X’s work?”
  • “Can I add greater value by asking good questions, and provoking my people to come up with their own answers/solutions?”

#2: Delegating the “what” and the “how”

Behaviors: Saying, in effect, “This is what I need, and here’s how I need you to do it,” or “You should / should’ve done it this way.”

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust you to do our job your own way, or to do your job the best way possible.

Executive coaching bites: Telling them how to do their work marginalizes, rather than maximizes, your people. This is a classic sign of micromanagement, and it goes directly to your bottom line. If there’s well-grounded concern about whether they will come up with a good solution, then you need to either provide greater support, or reconsider the person for their role.

If not, then having them figure out on their own the “how” of what you’ve asked them to do enables them to add value — and that’s, after all, what you pay them to do.

#3: Delegating without sufficient context

Behaviors: Making a request or command to do something without explaining why, or how it fits in to the bigger picture.

Unintended messages you send: You don’t need to be in the loop of the “why” of this. I don’t care enough about your success to actually increase the odds you will succeed here.

Executive coaching bites: People do a much better job when they understand the context of your request — it’s needed to tailor their thinking and output in a positive way, and is an easy way to improve employee engagement. Before making a request, try thinking about including them in the bigger picture, or at least explaining why they are NOT being given that context.

Other things that add context include how their work will be used, why it is the priority it is, etc. Higher-context delegation — even if it takes an extra minute or two of thought on your part — will yield greater engagement and better output among your people.

#4: Taking authority for decision-making too far up the chain

Behaviors: Many organizations say they want to empower their people — yet, particularly in difficult times, the reverse is what happens. Pulling too many decisions into committees, or up the leadership chain, making decisions on smaller issues or expenditures and not delegating them — all of these behaviors degrade effective leadership.

Unintended message it sends: I don’t trust you to make prudent or wise decisions.

Executive coaching bite: This may be a blind-spot issue. Consider asking your people: Which decisions do you feel you can make — yet are being made beyond or above you?

#5: Leading with the mindset that your employees are not allowed to fail

Behaviors: However well-intentioned, if people are working at their best, sometimes they will fall down or fail. Intervening, over-rehearsing, or otherwise being overly protective of them is not doing them a favor — it’s a weakness that should be weeded out.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust that you can handle yourself well.

Executive coaching bites: While it’s a good practice to help your people avoid falling a mile, falling an inch or even a foot can be an important — even an essential — learning experience. Stumbling every now and again can make your employees more self-sufficient; you deprive them of this empowerment if you are being too heavy-handed in their “defense.”

#6: Overriding an employee’s input or feedback

Behaviors: Taking in input, then (apparently to them) ignoring it without explanation. Asking for feedback, then overriding it.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust the quality or insights of your input.

Executive coaching bites: This is a very common management mistake. If you seek feedback or input, then choose to bypass or reject it, it’s important to share what was behind your decision. “You had good ideas, but we ran out of time / budget, and had to do the minimum,” or “I appreciated what you said, and hope we can take it to heart next time, but this time, X got in the way,” can help.

Otherwise, you risk shutting them down, which can hurt you in the end — particularly when the stakes are higher.

#7: Keeping your people under wraps

Behaviors: Bringing your people along with you to an important presentation or event, and not letting them actively participate. Not giving your people opportunities to showcase their work.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust you to do your best when the setting or stakes are higher.

Executive coaching bites: Again, if you are worried about showcasing your people in higher-stakes settings, then it’s important to address what’s worrying you. If not, then you may be in the habit of keeping your people under wraps, and that’s a habit that’s easily changed. Ask yourself: “What would need to happen for me to provide a platform for X to shine?”

This is a sure-fire employee retention strategy, and will reflect well on you when you become known for fostering new talent.

The takeaway

How to retain your best employees? Through your words and your actions, show them you trust them. And make them feel it. The dividends can be off the charts.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

2 thoughts on “Leadership and Trust: 7 Things Bosses Are Doing Wrong”

  1. My coworker and myself are paralyzed to do anything without fear of repercussions. Any advice for employees who works for a boss who does not evoke trust?

    1. That sounds like a very difficult situation. If the boss doesn’t seem to be in some process of learning or development, it’s likely not going to change. There’s no magic solution. When the time is right for you, or when it gets bad enough, you may want to consider alternative jobs or roles.

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