Stop trust becoming a leadership weakness

by FM Media
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High trust leaders can often find themselves at a disadvantage.

High trust leaders are at the core of an effective work culture, but empathy and trust alone are not enough, writes MARIE-CLAIRE ROSS.

The world needs more high-trust leaders – leaders, who support those around them, respect other people’s viewpoints and who are open to being challenged and challenging others to bring out their best. We need leaders who trust and believe in people.

It goes without saying high-trust leaders are critical to a thriving culture. They model the right behaviours and don’t tolerate toxicity. After all, leadership behaviours set the benchmark for employee interactions. You can’t have a high-performance culture without trust. And it starts with leaders.

But, could being a high-trust leader be detrimental? To this I would offer an unequivocal ‘yes’; but not in the way you may think.

Being perceived as a high-trust leader is beneficial and produces fantastic business outcomes. Yet there is a difference between being a highly trusted leader and one that is too trusting. Peers and direct reports typically rate a highly trusted leader favourably. But a too trusting leader can unintentionally cause trust issues.

Don’t get me wrong, if you are ‘too trusting’, you are far more likely to become a high-trust leader: much more so than a low-trust leader. But being too trusting makes those around you question whether they can rely on you to make the right decisions or hold your team to account.

Not only that, what I often see from well-meaning, high-empathy leaders is that they can often be an obvious target for those who do as little work as possible, but claim maximum credit, status and financial reward.

Take, for example, people with personality disorders such as sociopaths, narcissists or corporate psychopaths. They promise the world but rarely deliver. Their false charms fool many. And despite their protestations they will change, it will never be the case. Even psychologists have failed at devising methods to stop them from manipulating others and treating people as social assets ripe for exploitation.

And they hate empathetic, trusting leaders – because they are the ones that will catch them out and hold them to account.

Now, this doesn’t mean stop trusting people. If you’re too trusting, it’s difficult to change (and the world needs more people like you).

What you need to do is work with your natural strengths. You have the ability to create a thriving happy work environment for yourself, your team and your company. You have the ability to stop toxic workplace behaviours that cause so much pain. Surrounding yourself with the right people is key. You need allies – other trust champions who want a happy workplace without the unnecessary politics and friction. And you need to put the right boundaries and high-integrity behaviours in place. You need to serve as an exemplary role model.

Time and again, I see highly trusting people trying to get the wrong people to like them and not holding under-performers to account. Being too trusting can be a weakness if you allow the toxic actions of a few to negatively impact you or your team.

All it takes is to shift your view and actions so that you don’t live in a rainbow-coloured world where everybody is lovely and gets along well. The truth is there are many different personality types and there will always be people who don’t like you. There will be some who behave horribly at work and will not change. The optimal choice may be freeing them up to work elsewhere. Others in the team may be temporarily disengaged because they’re not working well in a negative environment.

From my research with high-trust leaders, what they do well is believe in people and give them a clear pathway to be better at their job. They support them, but implement clear boundaries and expectations so excuses won’t fly. They lead with integrity and compassion, but they don’t take lazy passengers on the journey. And they definitely do not tolerate bad behaviour. Here are four areas where I commonly see high-trust leaders get it right:

  1. Lobby the leader
    A common trait of the untrustworthy is that they will constantly work to convince leaders they are the smartest person in the room and everyone else is an idiot. You will see this when a new leader arrives on the scene. Or, when their behaviour has been questioned, they will sidestep their own boss and go to a higher level to knife those around them.

    Smart leaders must ensure people keen to mask their own bad behaviour are not manipulating them. If people are coming to you with complaints about others, always verify these complaints before acting on them. Avoid making hasty assumptions. And, if you’re a leader who is being sidestepped by a lobbyist, make sure you document their misdemeanours in writing in real-time.

  2. Drama, drama, drama
    Have you ever met someone who seems to always have a string of bad luck? This may seem counterintuitive, but a lot of untrustworthy people appear to go from one illness to another and have people dying all around them.

    Sometimes they are making it up. Often, it is true. That’s because sociopaths have a low threshold for boredom and love drama.

    They tend to create issues in the workplace because they’re bored or to distract others from questioning their poor performance. If someone on your team has a stream of sob stories or work-related problems, they are not an ally on your quest for a high-trust culture.

    Of course, there are those without personality problems who also go through a lot of chaos and challenges. These can be well-meaning types who are just going through a rough spot. Give them support and compassion. But if you want to create change or improve behaviours, they will be too caught up in their world of pain to help you.

  3. Don’t assume everyone is a good person
    While untrustworthy types tend to make nasty comments behind people’s backs, there is another group of people who refuse to believe anything bad about anyone.Tim and Jane McGregor, in their book The Empathy Trap refer to these types as ‘apaths’. Perfectly normal people who prefer to not say or even think anything bad about others. This can be because they lack insight or a highly developed conscience to stand up for what is right. Or, they may simply be so fearful that they choose not to call out behaviour they know is wrong. Either way, these types of people tacitly consent and allow bad behaviour to occur. They enable sociopaths and narcissists to wreak havoc in a workplace. It is a beautiful concept to believe that everyone is good, but this belief allows evil to flourish.

    If you are of high emotional intelligence, or an ‘empath,’ sociopaths who use ‘apaths’ to do their dirty work will target you.If a leader at your workplace refuses to listen to complaints about bullying or bad behaviours, then you’re dealing with an apath. Avoid working with them to rid the workplace of untrustworthy people, as they are often manipulated. They will not be able to help you. They may even be quietly working against you. Find someone else who shares your values.

  4. Demand accountability
    We also need to talk about one area where I commonly see emotionally intelligent leaders let themselves down. What empathetic leaders do exceedingly well is create a psychological safe environment – one where people can be themselves, take risks and know they won’t get punished.But creating a psychologically safe space isn’t enough to create high performance. You also have to demand accountability. Otherwise, you get employees who work in their comfort zone and fail to do high-quality or innovative work. You also make it easy for the untrustworthy to get away with subpar work.

    Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor who coined the term ‘psychological safety’ believes that psychological safety and accountability interact to produce a high-performing team where employees work in the ‘learning zone’. Leaders must make sure they lead by asking questions and holding their employees accountable for excellence.

    Typically, low-trust leaders hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety. They expect people to work in the ‘anxiety zone’, which is dangerous to our health and well-being.

As a high-trust leader, don’t confuse being a trusted leader with being a nice leader. Pull people up on substandard work and refuse to allow a poor team performer to give licence to your whole team to underperform (and give you a bad name).

High-empathy leaders never stop trusting people

If you are a trusting person, who keeps falling victim to untrustworthy types, it’s time to do something about it. Otherwise, you will have a career where these types of behaviours will keep happening. It can even ruin your career. And I should know, because it happened to me.

Knowing how to identify untrustworthy types is key. Then, you can weigh up the risks and consider what checks and balances you need to put in place. It also means being clear on boundaries, expectations and accountability. But it’s not about losing faith in humanity or making incorrect assumptions.

Always act the way you want others to act. Make sure you don’t react to negative behaviours in a way that will make other people see your behaviours as inappropriate. All you can do is act with integrity and shine the light on the right behavioural standards.

Reward the right behaviours and allow people to meet you where you are. Hopefully, in time, they will either leave to find a job that is a better cultural fit, or slowly work out that they need to change in their interactions with you. The result will be that your team will thank you for it because you refused to tolerate poor performers or actors. And really, that’s the definition of what makes a healthy corporate culture and great leadership.

Marie-Claire Ross is the chief corporate catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to empower employees to speak up about issues, challenge each other and share information. If you want to find out more about building trust, download the free insights paper Building Trust – How High-Trust Companies Deliver Faster Results,Increase Profitability and Loyalty at


Image: 123RF’s konstantynov, ©

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