When Leaders Don’t Extend Trust

I’m frequently asked the question, “What should you do if your leader doesn’t trust you?” Unfortunately, we live in a world of distrust. In the workplace, there are a number of reasons why a leader may not extend trust.

The leader is not a trusting person.

Some years ago, I worked for the senior vice president and general manager of a company at which I was the head of finance. We were sitting in a staff meeting one day when he told us point blank, “I don’t trust you.” He said, “Don’t take it personally, but I don’t trust anyone. So, when I ask you for information, please just give it to me and I will decide what’s best for the operation.” Now imagine you are a senior executive working in that division of a large public company and you’re hearing from your boss that he doesn’t trust you. How would you feel? The staff left that day demoralized. We couldn’t understand why this executive didn’t want to extend trust. We later found out what he said was true: he didn’t trust anybody; that’s just the way he was.

The leader may not trust you because of your own behavior.

When you think your leader doesn’t trust you, I encourage you to ask the question, “What did I do to encourage my leader to feel that way?” As a leader, your behavior may get you into situations in which trust is questioned. When I get a reaction from my team I didn’t expect or surprises me, I ask myself, “What did I do to create that response?” Look at your own behavior first. What are you doing that would create a non-trusting environment? Most of the time, you’ll find one of your behaviors is causing the reaction. I love what Stephen M.R. Covey says about how your behavior will get you into situations and your behavior will be the only thing to get you out of situations.

Just because someone doesn’t trust you, it doesn’t give you permission to not extend trust to them. Now, it’s very difficult to continue to extend trust when you are not receiving trust in return. I encourage you to do the best at your job, exceed expectations for what you do, and avoid talking behind the leader’s back — and take the high road. I love what Kid President says in “A Pep Talk From Kid President To You” on YouTube.com: “I took the road less traveled (the high road) … and, it hurt man!” It does hurt; you’re exhibiting behavior over and above what you’re getting in return and that’s very difficult. Here’s what I know about servant leaders: they will look at themselves first and change their own behavior before they expect others to change theirs. If you have relationships in your life where trust isn’t at the top of the list or isn’t part of them, look at yourself first. Ask, “What can I do to improve it?”

When I speak at workshops or do keynotes on trust, I usually ask this question of the group: “How many people drove in a car on the freeway to this event?” Most people did indeed drive on the freeway. I then ask, “With all the people you came across on the freeway, people who are driving anywhere from 60 to 80 miles an hour (sometime faster) in vehicles that have an average weight of 3,500 to 7,000 pounds, why did you trust those people to stay in the lanes?” We’ve learned to trust others on the road, people we don’t know in the cars around us. But when we get to work, the same trust we extend to people we don’t know on the freeway isn’t extended to those we work with. Why? Why don’t we extend the same amount of trust to those we know versus those we don’t?

The time for a crucial decision.

My last bit of advice for those who don’t have a trusting leader is this: at some point in time, you’ll need to decide if you can work in that kind of environment. That’s a decision only you can make. At times, we may have to live with what we have. At other times, we may be able to decide to move on. That timing is totally up to you. If you decide to move on, do your best to find the trusting environment you desire.

At the Servant Leadership Institute, we believe trust is the foundation of every relationship we have. I encourage you to learn all you can about the correlation between trust and behavior. Live your own “trusting” behaviors first, before you expect the behaviors of others to change toward you.

Art Barter is CEO of Datron World Communications Inc., a company he grew from $10 million to $200 million in sales by putting into practice of servant leadership. He also is CEO of Servant Leadership Institute, an organization that helps people and organizations put servant leadership into practice. His latest book is The Servant Leadership Journal.


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