Earning your team’s trust can take time but the benefits are worth the effort.
I once worked under a manager that I didn’t, or couldn’t, trust, and it was a disaster. Once that distrust set in, I began to second-guess everything they said, and my confidence and performance dropped as a result.
So when I started managing a team, I put a lot of energy into asking questions, reading, and taking courses related to building trust.
I learned that you earn somebody’s trust through your actions — this is true for any relationship, and it’s essential for new managers who want to lead a group of people.
In this blog, I’ll share what I’ve learned about earning and retaining trust so that you can help your team be productive and deliver for your customers.
I came across Frei and Morriss’s ‘Trust Triangle’ in the Harvard Business Review, and it’s now the basis for my understanding and assessment of how well I’m promoting trust within my team.
I try to embody the triangle’s three points — authenticity, empathy, and logic — in everything I do as a manager. Doing so helps me establish a culture of trust and psychological safety day-to-day.
New managers often want to get everything right from the get-go. But, ironically, that would be their first mistake. In fact, I’d say one of the worst things you can do would be to pretend to have all the answers. Why? Because that’s the total opposite of authenticity.
I showed my real self and my vulnerability right from the first meeting I held as a manager. I said to the team, “Look, I’m new to this. I’m going to be learning as I go but I’m going to do my very best.” I explained how excited I was to be managing them and why, but I never claimed to be perfect (or anywhere close, actually).
This authenticity set the tone for our team as somewhere mistakes could be made and not vilified. And when I have constructive feedback to share, I try to avoid framing it in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” kind of way. Instead, I say, “I have an observation I’d like to share with you if that’s okay?”
I believe my team is more receptive to these observations when framed as something to discuss and either give merit to or discredit together.
It’s no secret that empathy and leadership go hand-in-hand.
The good news for new managers is that simply committing to get to know your team members is a great, and very easy, first step. Regular one-on-ones are a big part of how I spend my time as a manager — these sessions allow me to engage with people on a personal level and better empathize with their individual employee experience.
But getting to know the team as people isn’t enough. You have to also act on what you’re learning and take their insights on board.
One employee, for example, came to me a little concerned about a corporate restructuring that the team recently found out about. For many of us, the phrase ‘corporate restructure’ is enough to send shivers down the spine and it was hardly surprising that the team was feeling nervous. So being empathetic to their needs, I took the time to gather some intel, prepare a short announcement for our next team meeting, and dedicate time for a Q&A.
I couldn’t stop the change but I did have the power to reassure and inspire my team — and that’s a power that they granted, through trusting in my approach.
It’s also important to remain empathetic when delivering feedback or, worse, disappointing news. If you know a team member was really gunning for promotion but now isn’t their time, or really put their all into a task but still missed the mark, come back to what your observations of the situation are and ask them about theirs.
As a manager, you’re also the bearer of bad news. And as much as you might want to mute your emotions in order to protect yourself, you should put your employee’s need for empathy first because these conversations are actually not about you. More on this later.
Lastly, we come to logic. I’ve just explained how important it is to speak person-to-person, so being logical isn’t about being unemotional. It’s about ensuring you’ve got your facts straight, that your team is on track to achieve its goals, and that all your activities are underpinned by organizational strategy.
To me, logic also means acting quickly when you know someone needs support. New managers may be tempted to wait an employee’s issue out, thinking, “Well, they said they were okay, so even though it looks like they are struggling, I’ll give them time.” What I’ve learned is that you cannot delay. One small struggle grows into a big disruption — and fast. If you fail to help when you should have, you risk losing the trust of that employee and the rest of the team.
There’s no such thing as the perfect manager and high-performing teams don’t actually benefit from having a manager who’s right 100% of the time. Managers who they can trust to have their back — managers who lead with authenticity, empathy, and logic — are far, far more valuable.
So my message for new managers is not to worry so much. If you’ve got the right values and you’re following the best practices, then you’re on the right track. And when you feel like you’re under pressure to succeed, remember that as a manager, you are not the star of the show — or you shouldn’t be, at least. It’s your job to make your team look good by helping them deliver results.
Can you win trust back once it’s been broken? I think you can. But you’ll need to appreciate that you have to rebuild their trust. Admit that you made a mistake, show that you understand why it was a mistake, and what you’ll do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This will help you earn credibility from which trust can start to be rebuilt.
Set the tone for your team as somewhere mistakes can be made (and will not be vilified). You can do this by being authentic, admitting your mistakes when you don’t know something, and by making feedback a team norm.
Get to know each person on your team by setting up a one-on-one. Focus on the Person, Position, and their Goals.
Prepare for your conversations and lead with empathy. Preparation will help you position yourself as someone people want to be led by and empathy will show that you care.
Adapt a servant leadership mindset. It’s no longer all about you, you have to focus on the team.
With that said, find time to focus on your individual tasks too. Otherwise, you won’t be prepared to lead your team and you’ll likely lose their trust.