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



Far too many leaders and managers inadvertently do things every day that send the message they distrust even their best people.

Sapping people’s trust is de-motivating, and de-motivated people simply don’t do their best work. I’m not suggesting your role is to motivate your people, but it’s critical NOT to de-motive them. Eliminating inadvertent behaviors that say, “I don’t trust you,” is a no-cost, high-value way 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. Below are seven areas for you to consider, and bite-sized coaching ideas on each one, taken from the pages of my experience as an executive coach with many leaders and organizations. I hope you find them helpful!

1. Hovering

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

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

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 / to do your job the best way possible.

Coaching bites: Telling them how to do their work is marginalizing, rather than maximizing, your people, which 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 either provide greater support, or reconsider the person for their role. If it’s not, then having them figure out on their own the “how” of what you’ve asked them to do makes them add value, and that’s what you pay them to do.

3. Delegating without sufficient context

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

Unintended message 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.

Coaching bites: People do a much better job when they understand the context of your request—it’s needed to tailor the thinking and output in a positive way. Before making a request, try thinking about including them in the bigger picture, OR 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 another 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 the tidal pull. Pulling too many decisions into committees, or up the leadership chain, making decisions on smaller issues or expenditures and not delegating them.

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

Coaching bite: This may be a blind spot issue. Consider asking your people—which decisions do they feel they can make, yet that are being made beyond or above them?

5. Leading with the mindset that your people 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 heavy-handedly protective of them.

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

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—irreplaceable—learning experience, one that makes them more self-sufficient, and one that you deprive them of if you are being too heavy-handed in their “defense.”

6. Overriding your people’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.

Coaching bites: 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 up / shutting them down, particularly when the stakes are higher.

7. Keeping your people under wraps

Behaviors: bringing your people along with you to an important presentation or moment, and not having 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.

Coaching bites: Again, if you are worried about your people presenting or showcasing 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?”

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

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