Trust in the Workplace: Four Patterns That Break It and How to Rebuild

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Jan 24, 2024
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when employees lose trust in their boss

In today’s fast-paced business world, 'trust in the workplace' is not just a phrase; it's the cornerstone of successful leadership and effective team dynamics. The strength of any organization lies in the trust established between employees and their leaders. 

However, this trust is not immune to challenges and can be broken by certain behaviors and attitudes. Understanding how trust is broken is the first step toward creating a more cohesive and productive work environment.

In this post, we’ll explore the four common patterns of behavior that erode trust in the workplace. We’ll also discuss how employers can prevent these issues, the vital role of self-awareness in leadership and effective strategies for rebuilding trust to restore employee confidence in leadership.

By addressing these critical aspects, we aim to provide a comprehensive guide for fostering a trustworthy and positive work atmosphere.

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Understanding and Preventing Broken Trust in the Workplace

Trust in the workplace is a delicate balance, one that requires continuous effort and understanding from both management and employees. It’s crucial to acknowledge that a breakdown in trust doesn't happen abruptly; it's often the result of a series of repeated behaviors that gradually erode the team's confidence in their leadership. When left unaddressed, this lack of trust can escalate to the point where employees feel their only recourse is to leave the organization.

Identifying and understanding behaviors that contribute to this breakdown is the key to prevention. It's normal for leaders to occasionally make mistakes or have lapses in judgment. However, the real concern arises when these missteps turn into persistent patterns of behavior. These patterns can significantly impact the team's morale and productivity, and recognizing them early is essential in maintaining a healthy work environment.

Here are the critical behaviors that, if not addressed, can lead to a loss of trust in leadership:

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Four Patterns of Behavior that Erode Trust in the Workplace

1. Not Keeping Promises: The Impact of Unfulfilled Commitments

A leader's reliability is measured by their ability to keep promises. When leaders consistently fail to follow through on commitments, it erodes the foundation of trust in the workplace. This behavior not only undermines employees' faith in their leadership but also instills a sense of instability within the team.

Consider a common scenario: a leader makes a well-intentioned statement to motivate their team, such as suggesting that working overtime could lead to a promotion. While this may be a general motivational tactic, employees can interpret it as a concrete promise.

Imagine an employee who, taking the statement to heart, dedicates several weeks to working overtime, expecting a promotion discussion that never materializes. This situation leads to significant disappointment and a sense of betrayal.

The issue here isn’t just about unmet expectations; it's about the perceived integrity of the leader. When leaders make statements they don't intend to follow through on, even if meant as general encouragement, it can create confusion and disillusionment among employees.

Repeated instances of such behavior can severely damage the trust employees have in their leadership.

To maintain trust, leaders must be mindful of their statements and ensure they can deliver on what they promise. It's better to under-promise and over-deliver than to make grand statements that cannot be fulfilled. Transparent communication, setting realistic expectations and following through on commitments are key to sustaining trust and respect in the workplace.

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2. Inconsistency Between Words and Actions: The Dilemma of Mixed Messages

A crucial element of trust in the workplace hinges on the alignment between what leaders say and what they do. When there's a disconnect between a leader's words and actions, it creates an environment of uncertainty and unpredictability, which can be highly detrimental to employee morale and trust.

Take, for example, a common workplace policy against tardiness and absenteeism. Employees are typically well aware of such policies as outlined in their handbooks. However, trust issues surface when they observe selective enforcement of these rules.

If a manager overlooks or even implicitly rewards such behavior for certain employees while strictly enforcing the rules for others, it sends a confusing and unfair message. This not only breeds resentment but also risks increasing staff turnover, as employees feel demoralized and undervalued.

Moreover, inconsistency can be particularly damaging when it pertains to performance expectations. Imagine a scenario where a manager continually heaps responsibilities on the department’s most diligent workers without acknowledging their extra effort, while others who underperform face no consequences. This kind of imbalance in managing performance and expectations can quickly erode trust and respect.

Leaders must be vigilant about maintaining consistency in their actions and words. It's essential to apply policies and expectations uniformly to all employees to foster a sense of fairness and respect. Leaders should also ensure that their actions reflect the values and standards they vocalize, avoiding any ambiguity that might lead to mistrust. By doing so, they can create a more trustworthy and transparent work environment, where employees feel valued and fairly treated.

employee handbook

3. My Way or the Highway Approach: The Pitfalls of Inflexible Leadership

Trust in the workplace is often jeopardized when leaders adopt a rigid 'My Way or the Highway' approach. This style of leadership, where a manager or supervisor insists on a single 'correct' way of doing things, fails to recognize the diversity of working styles and approaches among team members. Such rigidity can stifle creativity, reduce engagement and erode trust.

In any dynamic workplace, employees bring a variety of perspectives, skills and methods for tackling projects and managing their workload. While it’s understandable that leaders sometimes need to make final decisions, it’s equally important to respect and value individual preferences and working styles.

A one-size-fits-all approach is rarely effective and can lead to frustration and a lack of motivation among team members.

To bridge this gap, effective managers strive to gain a deeper understanding of each team member's unique working style. One practical method is to have team members complete personality inventories designed for the workplace. These tools can provide leaders with valuable insights into the strengths, preferences, and motivations of their team members.

Armed with this knowledge, a leader can better tailor their approach, assigning tasks and responsibilities that align with individual strengths. This not only optimizes team performance but also demonstrates respect for individual differences, fostering a more inclusive and trustful work environment.

Furthermore, such an approach encourages a culture of collaboration rather than dictation. By acknowledging and leveraging the diverse capabilities within the team, leaders can create a more dynamic, adaptable and ultimately successful working environment. 

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4. Leaders Giving Off an Air of Superiority: The Human Touch in Leadership

The transition to a leadership role can sometimes inadvertently lead to an air of superiority among new bosses. This change in demeanor, from being down-to-earth and approachable to appearing arrogant or overly confident, is often not intentional.

It can stem from the anxieties associated with stepping into a leadership position, where there's a perceived need to appear infallible or all-knowing. However, this perception is a misstep in building trust and rapport with team members.

The essence of effective leadership lies in being relatable and human. Employees need to feel that their leaders are approachable and empathetic to their challenges. Pretending to be perfect or having all the answers is unrealistic and can create a disconnect between leaders and their teams.

Admitting mistakes, acknowledging areas of uncertainty and showing vulnerability are not signs of weakness but of strength and honesty. These traits foster an environment of trust and open communication.

One of the best ways for leaders to demonstrate humility and earn respect is by actively seeking and valuing employee feedback. Asking team members for their opinions on work processes and genuinely considering their suggestions can significantly boost morale.

Implementing feasible ideas from employees not only improves workflows but also shows that their contributions are valued and make a difference. This approach helps to dismantle any perceived superiority and creates a more collaborative, inclusive and trusting work environment.

Moreover, when leaders openly acknowledge their limitations and seek input from their team, it encourages a culture of learning and continuous improvement. It shows that leadership is a journey of growth, not just a position of authority. This mindset is crucial in developing a strong, cohesive team that feels invested in their work and respected by their leaders.

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Self-Awareness is the Key to Successful Leadership

Even the most well-intentioned leaders may display some of these behaviors at times. Committing to ongoing self-evaluation is the best way for managers to learn from their mistakes and do better next time. This commitment also helps employers to retain high-quality workers.

The journey to effective leadership is continuous and demands a high degree of self-awareness. Even the most dedicated and well-intentioned leaders can occasionally exhibit some of these behaviors at times.

The key to evolving as a leader lies in the willingness to engage in ongoing self-reflection and evaluation. A commitment to self-awareness enables leaders to learn from their experiences and adapt their approaches. This not only enhances their leadership skills but also demonstrates to their team a dedication to personal accountability and continuous improvement.

Such a commitment can significantly influence how employees perceive their leaders, building respect and trust.

This approach to leadership also plays a vital role in retaining high-quality workers. When employees see that their leaders are actively working to improve and value their contributions, they are more likely to feel satisfied and engaged in their roles. This not only reduces turnover but also helps in building a strong, cohesive team that is committed to the organization's goals.

Self-awareness is not just a beneficial trait for leaders; it's a cornerstone of successful leadership. By embracing self-reflection and committing to personal growth, leaders can inspire their teams, foster a positive work culture, and drive organizational success.

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Rebuilding Trust: Restoring Employee Confidence in Leadership

Losing trust in the boss can have a significant negative impact on employee morale and productivity. Rebuilding strong, trustworthy working relationships is crucial for the success of your organization.

Navigating this process is easier when you lean on the expertise of a professional employer organization like Axcet HR Solutions. With our comprehensive HR consulting services, we can help you address underlying issues that may be causing employees to lose trust. We also can help you rebuild trust and create a positive work environment.

Our deep bench of experienced HR consultants work closely with small business owners to develop effective communication strategies, implement transparent policies and foster a culture of trust and accountability. Don't let a breakdown in trust hinder your team's potential. Schedule a consultation to learn how our expert guidance and support can help you cultivate a healthy, productive workplace with effective leaders.

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