Do Your People Trust You?

When we talk to managers, we often ask, “Do your people trust you?” Most are taken aback. It’s not something they’re often asked or a question they’ve even asked themselves.

After some thought, most eventually say something like, “Well, I think so. I hope so. No one’s said he doesn’t.” In fact, as they ultimately admit, they don’t really know for sure.
It’s a question worth asking. Do your people trust you?

Chances are, you don’t know for sure, either. If so, that’s potentially a problem because your ability to elicit people’s best efforts depends on their trust in you — their confidence that they can count on you to do the right thing. Your basic job as a boss is to influence others, to make a difference in what they do and in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions. Yet, even as the person in charge, the one with authority, you can ultimately influence people only to the extent they are willing to be influenced by you. And that willingness will depend on whether they trust you. Without trust, why should people do what you ask, especially if you’re asking something difficult? Why should they accept your judgment? Above all, why would they devote the care and extra effort that quality work requires? As the boss, you can demand compliance but you must earn commitment, and the coin of that realm is trust.

As we explore this topic with managers, we find it’s a subject both familiar and unfamiliar.
Most people don’t know how to think about it constructively. Why?

First, they often don’t realize how context-sensitive trust is. Your people certainly wouldn’t trust you, say, to do brain surgery on one of their children, and you would find that lack of trust completely understandable. You’re not to be trusted in that context. So, when we ask, “Do your people trust you?” we’re not asking about people’s confidence in you as a person in general — whether, for example, they think you will repay them promptly if you borrow $10. Instead, we’re really asking, “Do your people trust you as a boss?” For them to accept you as a boss, they must trust you in that context. When we delve later into the components of trust, you’ll see why context is so important.

The second reason most managers feel a little lost when they think about trust is that most of us resist the idea that trust is something you can actively and consciously encourage. To say it can and should be fostered feels manipulative and self-serving. We instinctively distrust the person who exclaims, “Trust me!” We usually don’t consider trust an outcome we can or should try to control directly. Sure, if we outright lie, cheat, steal, and fail to keep our word, others will consider us untrustworthy. But most of us don’t consistently or purposely behave that way. We try to tell the truth, abide by the rules, honor others’ rights and belongings, and if we cannot keep a promise, we explain why. For most of us, that’s how we were brought up. It’s who we are and so we think of trust as the outcome of simply being who we are. It’s only when we occasionally — usually inadvertently — break someone’s trust that we worry about it. Otherwise, trust just happens and we think that’s how it should be.

But believing as a boss that trust will somehow take care of itself may not work out the way you want. You do need to think about it. And you may need to take conscious steps that make clear to others that you deserve their trust. None of those steps involves dishonesty or manipulation — on the contrary — but they do involve your being explicit about yourself, about what you know, and about the reasons behind your decisions and actions. In other words, it may require that you be more open as a boss than you might personally be inclined to be.

Indeed, the need for such openness may cut against the grain of many managers, especially new managers, who believe that as the boss they’re able to take action without having to explain it to everyone involved.

What this means and how you do it will become more clear in the next two blogs, in which we will explore each of the two components of trust — competence and character. For people to trust you as a boss, they must believe you know what to do as a boss. At one time or another, we’ve all had bosses of whom people said, “He doesn’t know the business” or “She doesn’t understand what we do.” No one would trust you to do brain surgery because you’re incompetent in that context.

Character is equally important. It refers to your intentions — what you’re trying to do, your goals and values as a boss. If, for example, people think you’re only out for yourself, driven by blind ambition, and don’t care about them, the group, or the work, they will distrust your character, no matter how much you know. You need competence and character both to earn your people’s trust.

In the next blog, we’ll explore competence, what it means to “know” as a boss and what you can legitimately do to demonstrate competence. (No, it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be the expert.) And in the blog after that, we’ll delve into character, a much more elusive concept that obviously can vary greatly with the context. But we’ll try to say some constructive things about it, and how you can foster it, that apply broadly.

Don’t take trust for granted, or believe it just happens, because virtually all you do as a boss begins with people’s trust in you.

Linda Hill & Kent Lineback

Linda Hill & Kent Lineback

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Kent Lineback spent many years as a manager and an executive in business and government. They are the coauthors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader  

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