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Leadership and Management

How to Rebuild Trust After a Failed Leader Leaves

Everyone generally understands the concept of trust, but few know how to actually build it.

When a business leader fails, trust in him or her, as well as his or her ability to lead, is destroyed.

After a corrupt or incapable leader is forced out of the organization, employees are left behind in a wake of destruction and confusion. They develop feelings of distrust and betrayal directed not only toward the failed leader, but oftentimes toward the leadership of the company in general.

So, as the new leader coming in, what can you do to pick up the pieces and regain employee trust?

It won’t be easy.

But if you set out to build trust using this approach, you’ll have a brand-new, stronger structure up and running in no time.

You already have the right tools

Clearly, if you weren’t perceived as having the skills with which to master this project, you wouldn’t have been chosen for the job. Your collective experience from past roles acts as your tool for handling the construction of trust. But you don’t have to go it alone.

Remember that no matter what your role is, you can always look to upper management for guidance.

Whether that guidance is from the executive team, if you’re a manager or supervisor, or from a trusted mentor, if you’re a CEO, high-level advice is always a helpful tool to have on-hand.

Get to know your materials

Now that you’ve organized your tools, it’s time to gather your materials. You can’t just build trust out of nothing, you know.

Your materials are the talents, attitudes and perspectives of your new team of employees. These qualities are what you must work with to generate the teamwork and focus that you need for the foundation of your structure of trust.

First, you must fully understand what you’re working with.

The best way to do this is by establishing direct lines of communication with your employees. That means promoting an open, two-way, ever-flowing discussion, not just between you and your team members, but between all employees in general.

Ask questions

What happened? Why did their leader leave/get forced out?

Actively listen to what your people have to say. This is essential to gaining insight into your employees’ perspectives on what actually happened during the failed leader’s term and why.

Many leaders don’t understand the difference between listening and active listening. You can essentially listen by just inviting employees to air their grievances, nodding as they speak, thanking them and then moving on. Listening is a passive, one-way monologue.

Active listening is inviting employees to speak up about their concerns and providing in-the-moment feedback in the form of a discussion – asking questions, validating points, explaining your responses, etc. Active listening is a two-way conversation that shows your employees you are really hearing and considering their words and feelings.

Be sure to stay impartial

Don’t foster negativity by engaging in “gossipy” conversations regarding the failed leader’s flaws. Keep an even tone and refrain from any judgment of either party’s role in the former leader’s demise.

Get to know each employee as an individual. All trust issues aside, learn their strengths and weaknesses and what skill sets and talents they offer that are beneficial to achieving corporate objectives.

Your intention in all of this is to develop a sense of team camaraderie as individuals begin feeling safe in sharing what they went through and vocalizing the root causes of their feelings of distrust and betrayal.

As you encourage the open flow of communication, an atmosphere of trust will slowly begin to build.

Worst case scenario

But what happens when employees are still feeling the pain of the past leader’s harmful actions and are unwilling to trust or engage in positive team conversations? These individuals may not only stubbornly avoid change and withdraw from activities, but they may also stir up the past with negative attitudes or conversations about the company.

You must make every effort to take these individuals aside and speak to them one-on-one.

Try to understand his or her aversion to the program for rebuilding trust. Provide a safe place for private discussion where the employee can speak without judgement or consequences for his or her opinions.

You may be able to extend a peace offering by outwardly asking the disgruntled employees for input on what changes need to be made. Sometimes asking for help allows the other individuals to feel empowered and trusted, so as to potentially stimulate them to feel the same toward you.

Do the jaded employees have a manager they trust that they would be more open to communicating with? Ask for the trusted managers’ assistance in meeting with employees and trying to further involve them in team-building activities.

There are, unfortunately, occasions where trust between employees and company leader has been permanently damaged.

In this situation, there isn’t much more to do. If they continue to stay and toxify the rebuilding effort, you may need to consider termination.

Be aware: Terminations can kick up further resentment based on employee friendships and alliances. But, in some instances, removing negative individuals will be a short-term challenge to provide for the continued evolution of the team as a whole.

Navigating through the emotional fallout of your employees’ experiences is draining and doesn’t always end with a positive outcome for all. It’s a never-ending process, as reminders or past resentments may pop up anywhere along the way.

Keep aware of these as you continue to build.

Outline your plans – with your employees’ help

Be mindful of the fact that current performance may not be a reliable indicator of future potential.

Your employees’ performance levels have likely declined with the increase in workplace conflict, so all or a few members of your team may still be working off of the negative fallout from the failed leader’s reign.

Solicit your employees’ assistance by working together to formulate a new team mission statement and re-defined expectations.

Ask them what went wrong in the past. Employees may be able to provide valuable insight as to what objectives need to be more clearly explained and why. Make sure that during these conversations, past issues continue to be addressed by providing for open feedback. This may help minimize the degree to which negative feelings explode into major dramas.

Be sure that new ideals align with the company’s overarching objectives.

At the end of the day, goals need to be focused upon results and business success for the company.

Review past goals within each department and work with your managers to ensure planned actions align to workforce structure and future productivity.

Build confidence in each individual’s perception of their own strengths and those of their teammates by clarifying existing goals, detailing new ones and thoroughly outlining the process for how to achieve them.

Ensure mutual understanding of the evaluation process, as well as how success will be measured.

Get building

How can you keep employee morale high and a focus on goals intact?

Create easily attainable early accomplishments and celebrate their achievement.

Be there to coach and advise employees who have lost their way. You can do this with an open atmosphere where employees aren’t afraid to ask for clarification or help when needed.

Regular meetings where teams can meet and discuss progress allows for the opportunity to work together to find solutions to issues or setbacks. By scheduling these regular check-in meetings ahead of time, managers are better able to anticipate and remove obvious road blocks.

Be patient.

When your employees feel that you support them and their endeavors, slowly but surely, trust builds.

Pretty soon, your people will feel comfortable enough to take risks and dive into their work and you and their teammates will be there to give them the boost that they need to keep going.

But the work doesn’t stop there.

Insure what you’ve built

Remember the two-sided nature of trust: as difficult as it is to build, it’s just as easy to destroy.

Mistakes and issues are going to occur no matter what, threatening to crack the foundation of the trust you have built.

So put in your own version of hazard insurance.

Encourage employee feedback. Schedule recurring meetings to update your team on company changes as they arise. Plan regular teambuilding exercises. Address issues head-on before they become larger problems.

With a unified team and clear communication, free from hidden agendas and underlying tensions, you create an environment where trust can continue to flourish.

And stay standing no matter what kind of disaster may hit.

Why does trust matter?

At the end of the day, your business can’t function without your people, your most important asset.

Without trust, your people won’t stick around for long. And high levels of internal conflict will cause productivity to plummet for the ones who do decide to stay.

Download our guide, How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business, to learn more about effective leadership principles for building a better workplace.

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  • Mary Lou Parrott

    Mary Lou Parrott

    Performance Consultant

    Mary Lou Parrott has more than 15 years of experience in all facets of human resources, payroll and performance management. Currently, she is a performance consultant at Insperity. She specializes in multi-state employee relations, virtual facilitation and instructional design, and performance management. She has also earned CPP, SPHR, DDI and SLE certifications.

    Other posts by Mary Lou Parrott

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