Can I Trust You? 10 Behaviors that Erode Trust

When I worked in corporate America as an employee, I had a manager who while he was a great person, was just not very deliberate in his approach to dealing with people. I remember a time when he had scheduled a meeting to discuss my career goals. We had been talking for about 10 minutes when his phone rang. He looked at his phone, indicated that he needed to take the call, and proceeded to speak to the caller. The person on the line must have asked him how long he would be because he paused, looked at me and then his watch, hesitated, and responded that he would be about 15 minutes. He hung up and resumed our conversation.

About five minutes later his phone rang again. He repeated his previous behavior with a new caller. That was it for me. Before he could continue, I suggested that it might be better if we rescheduled. Relieved, he accepted and scurried off to another meeting.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this is atypical. With all there is to do, plus the additional assignment of managing people, it is easy to overlook how your behavior, both what you say and do, is negatively impacting the people around you.

Here are 10 behaviors that often create distrust with others. It is helpful to remember that trust is built over time. The more you behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you say or what others expect, the greater the likelihood that people will come to distrust you.

1. Gossip. You are setting yourself up for failure if you talk negatively about people behind their backs. Because people often share more than they should with others, you cannot count on them keeping what you say in confidence. When you share negative things about others who are not present, it usually gets back to those people. Additionally, when you talk negatively about others, the person who is listening to you is wondering what you are saying negatively about them. That leads them to distrust you from the outset. Keep your criticisms to yourself.     

2. Not saying what you will do and doing what you say. Keeping your word to people is paramount to establishing trust. If you can’t keep your word for whatever reason, tell the person immediately and then make adjustments that they can count on. You might even consider explaining to the person what changed that made keeping your commitment to them difficult or impossible. By doing this, you are taking control of the situation and setting yourself to be perceived in a positive light. Keep your word.

3. Different strokes for different folks. This is usually about playing favorites. The person may allow some people to avoid accountability while heavily scrutinizing or criticizing the performance of others. This may also take the form of applying rules to people or groups differently. Sometimes, there might be the application of different ethical standards--what one person may be accountable for may not be equally applied to another. Be equitable.

4. Knowingly being untruthful.Sometimes we make mistakes. When we are called out, our first impulse may be to deny or blame someone else for our shortcomings. No matter what you say, those who know differently will note that you didn’t tell the truth and will doubt your truthfulness from then on.

Sometimes leaders are asked questions about situations that they cannot answer because of company policy or legal concerns. You would be better off to simply state that you can’t answer the question, rather than creating a fabrication for appearance’s sake. Tell the truth.

5. Reacting emotionally. When things don’t turn out as planned or expected, many allow their emotions to explode onto the scene. When this happens, the message is lost and the emotion becomes the message. Many people react adversely to emotional responses by either shutting down or meeting emotion with emotion of their own. When either of these tactics are employed, all rationality is lost in that moment. It is not uncommon to feel surprised by the actions of others. When this occurs, it is imperative that emotions remain in check. When calmer emotions prevail, the parties can resort to dialogue as a means of understanding and creating effective solutions. Keep your cool.    

6. Decision-making challenges. Over the years, I have had many individuals share how their manager seemed to avoid making decisions. When I have asked why this occurs, it appears that their organization valued being right or avoiding mistakes at any cost. When this is the case, it is understandable why leaders might waiver on the decisions they make or sidestep taking action. It is easier to wait for someone more senior to step up and make a decision rather than risk making the wrong decision. Think about the impact this behavior may have on the manager’s leadership credibility. Make a decision, learn from the results, and decide again.

7. Throwing people under the bus. This behavior takes many forms. Sometimes it is about blaming others. This becomes particularly harmful if an individual is taken to task in front of others on his or her team. Sometimes leaders might give directives for the completion of a task which an employee follows exactly. Then when the results are not as expected, the employee is blamed for doing exactly what they were asked to do.

I once attended a meeting where I saw a VP attack his entire team in front of the president of the company for their efforts on a project. I found out later that the VP was more interested in siding with the president than defending his team’s efforts. His team never trusted him after that. Have integrity.

8. Failure to communicate. People want to know what is going on in a company. They want to know what they need to improve; they want to know what they did well. They want to know what to expect. When people don’t have information, they make it up, usually in the worst possible way. Providing information allows people to focus on their jobs and to avoid the distractions that are created by a lack of information. The adage that no news is good news is a fallacy in the majority of the working world. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

9. Withholding information. This behavior is closely aligned with the previous characteristic. I have known managers who have knowingly withheld information that was critical to the completion of projects. Once one phase of a project has been completed, the manager will then provide the next bit of information needed to complete the next step in the project. Often the new information impacts the way the first step in the project was undertaken. This results in the first step having to be redone or adjusted based the new information. This behavior ends up wasting time and resources as well as undermining the work and motivation of others. When I confronted a manager about this behavior, he told me that he was in charge and that the information was his to control and to manage in the way that he saw fit. I am still dumbfounded by his perspective. Share information.

10. Being disrespectful. Respect is built by speaking to and treating people with dignity. Getting to know your people, calling them by name, being supportive, and helping to develop them will go a long way toward developing respect.

I had a class participant share a story where she took one of her female friends up to her office on a Saturday night to show her where she worked. After walking around the office, she was confronted in the hall by her manager who asked her, “Who are you and what are you doing on this floor?” She responded, “I have been showing my friend our office. Don’t you recognize me? I have worked here for 18 months. You gave me my performance review six weeks ago, and you don’t know who I am?” Perhaps her manager didn’t recognize her because she was there unexpectedly and dressed differently than when she came to work. Who knows, but her manager didn’t do himself any favors that night. Be respectful.      

There are certainly several other behaviors that erode trust between people. Trust is earned, not demanded or expected. I once had a manager who said that trust was a gift from a person based on the degree of positive influence that you offered to them. The lack of trust kills initiative, destroys candor and openness, stymies discretionary effort, erodes loyalty, and dissolves relationships. Taking deliberate action to create trust will strengthen your influence as a leader, enhance people’s performance, and improve the  quality of your results.  

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