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Is your leadership on the defense? 8 strategies to build trust in the workplace


If misunderstandings and interpersonal issues are fuel to the fire that is conflict in the workplace, what can be used to put out the flame? Or what could have been done to prevent the fire in the first place?

Before answering those questions, ask: How did the fire begin? Typically, these type of relationship fires begin because of one missing element: trust.

Start with the source: Trust in the workplace

As a leader, you can troubleshoot whether you have trust in the workplace when you engage in critical conversations with employees. Discussions around the following topics can be applicable:

  • Job performance (including formal performance reviews)
  • Feedback on projects
  • Interpersonal issues with other colleagues, or perhaps even between you and the employee
  • Disciplinary issues
  • Inability to reach goals
  • Negative impacts to career path, such as a demotion or role change
  • Or any regular day-to-day interaction

From both the manager and employee perspective, many people dread these conversations because they’re often tough or potentially uncomfortable.

A common reason why? There’s a lack of trust. Employees may not believe their manager truly has their back, supports them and advocates for their best interests. They may even see them in an adversarial role.

Some employers, in moments of frustration, can even unintentionally say morale-killing things to employees, which can easily compound the lack of trust and demotivate their people.

When these critical conversations happen, employees may react in a number of ways that you may not expect or even want. They may:

  • Shut down and say nothing
  • Become passive
  • Withdraw
  • Shift blame
  • Become angry, defensive or aggressive
  • Seek to shut down the conversation as soon as possible, even if they’re seen as overly agreeable

Prescriptive leadership: One strategy and three steps to try

Prescriptive leadership is often reactive (grabbing the extinguisher to put out the fire). As a leader, you’re taking a step-by-step approach to try and fix a situation with an employee in which it’s apparent that something is ablaze. It’s about building trust and making things better in the moment.

Here’s a simple scenario to think through to consider the DNA approach.

A leader walks into a meeting with news of a decision that will take their team to their next goal. As the leader explains the new opportunity, a senior team member speaks up and comments bluntly about their concerns of how the new initiative will work.

The leader can take this in one of two directions:

  • React: If the leader reacts, they may ignore the comment altogether or attack the comment with a loaded reply.
  • Respond: If the leader responds, they will complete the final two steps of the DNA approach.

So that we don’t over complicate the directions of a prescription, keep it simple in three parts.

D = Decisions that have been made

We all carry around a set of beliefs, biases, natural tendencies, preferences and life experiences. Together, these are the “stories in our heads” that we tell ourselves – our built-in thought processes that influence how we automatically respond to others’ words and actions.

This is where many leaders and employees alike stop. Most people don’t want to see an issue from another perspective – their decision’s been made. Someone says or does something, and then we react according to our pre-made decisions.

In the example above, a leader is challenged by a team member who disagrees with them. Their initial reaction might be to put that employee in their place. Or as noted, they might ignore the comment altogether.

Lack of understanding and conflict can ensue.

N = New information is available

A leader who progresses to this next level will, when confronted with new information or some sort of challenge, first seek to learn and understand. They won’t automatically accept or reject the information on the basis of whether it aligns with their own decisions.

When the senior team member made their blunt comment – regardless of what leadership thought their intent was – the manager has an opportunity to seek new information.

A = Ask questions, adjust and act

How do you gather new information and see from their perspective? Use this final step and ask:

  • Questions
  • For their input and insight
  • Why they feel a certain way
  • What their experience suggests

Based on what they learn, prescriptive leaders can adjust their decisions and act on new thought processes. This is critical for a climate of collaboration and trust – and extinguishing the fire.

Why we need trust in the workplace

Leaders are critical in influencing workplace culture and establishing trust because employees watch their actions and cues. They learn very quickly whether they can speak up, ask questions and challenge ideas. Employees intuit whether they’ll face some form of pushback from leadership, including being berated, belittled or ignored.

Consider it this way:

  1. Leaders influence emotions.
  2. Emotions drive people.
  3. People drive performance.

Your leadership impacts how comfortable or on edge, or how open or closed off, people feel. This can directly impact performance and output, as well as day-to-day interpersonal relationships.

The key to establishing trust: Preventive leadership

Preventative leadership is proactive – leaders use this style to clear debris, set alarms and help avoid fires from sparking. It’s the work done before the conflict ever begins.

Preventive leaders are:

  • Empathetic and able to adopt the perspective of others
  • Servant leaders who want to support and meet the needs of their team members
  • Eager to listen, ask questions and learn from others
  • Accepting of differences
  • Collaborative
  • Respectful of others

Someone who practices preventive leadership can answer yes to both these questions:

  • Do I have an environment where new information is sharable?
  • Am I willing to accept, act on or even adjust to this new information?

So, how can you proactively develop trusting relationships with employees and prevent critical conversations from becoming difficult and damaging that trust?

7 ways to practice preventative leadership

1. Establish your company’s values

Your company’s values are its stable foundation. Common examples of values are integrity, respect, innovation, adaptability and accountability. When put into practice, values lay the groundwork for trusting relationships and a positive culture.

Continually evaluate which values your organization excels at embodying and in which areas your organization could improve. As leaders, the gap between what we say and do with those values is trust – your values aren’t just words on a poster.

2. Get to know your people

By proactively getting to know your people, you’ll find new understandings that build trust and may influence growth overall. You’ll learn:

  • What motivates them
  • What stresses them out
  • How they solve problems
  • Their strengths and weaknesses
  • Their ideal working environment
  • The first questions they like to ask when handed a new assignment or project
  • Their preferred means of communication
  • How they like to be recognized for exemplary work or achievements

How do you find out this information?

  • Ask your employees directly.
  • Create a set of questions that you ask overtime in your one-on-one meetings
  • Give your employees a DISC personality assessment (or maintain awareness of the DISC assessment and try to ascertain their DISC personality type on your own).

Sometimes the road to establishing trusting relationships can be hindered by misjudgement. Find peace in the pause, and consider these questions before jumping to conclusions about employee behavior:

If you understand someone else’s motivations, preferences and natural tendencies, as a result there should be less conflict, misunderstandings and discomfort.

3. Give your feedback story

Let your employees know upfront why and how you give feedback. Your employees want to know that your feedback isn’t about you not liking them and harping on them, or you feeling superior. It’s about you wanting to help and support them.

An apt analogy to share with employees is that you’re like an air traffic controller. You have a different – broader– perspective of their journey. Your intention isn’t to make people feel upset or like a failure. Your intention is to keep each member of your team on course, much like an air traffic controller delivers so pilots can reach their destination.

A pilot getting good information doesn’t question an air traffic controller. They know the air traffic controller can see something they don’t and wants to help them avoid mistakes. Likewise, your employees should understand that you’re giving them information to support them, bolster their career and help them reach their goals.

4. Engineer your culture

Your best intention minus action equates to a lack of trust. On the other hand, your best intention plus action equates to increased trust.

In other words, to get the culture you want, you have to match your words with your actions and lead by example. Your employees are looking at the last thing you did – not your last best intention.

5. Create certainty

Your employees need to feel safe, understood and valued. When thinking about your leadership, your people will consider these three measures:

Safe: Does my manager have my back?

Understood: Does my manager have empathy for me and seek to understand my perspective?

Valued: Does my manager recognize my talents and how they benefit the organization while leveraging my gifts to their full potential? Do they recognize and reward me for a job well done?

Ask yourself:

  • Are you struggling with any employees?
  • Do you truly have your employees’ back?
  • What actions are you taking to make people feel safe, understood and valued?
  • How do you recognize and reward employees?

6. Determine whether you’re under-leading or over-leading

To maintain trust, leaders should adapt their leadership style over time and manage employees at their appropriate level of development.

Under-leading means that you provide minimal guidance and supervision to an employee. Over-leading means that you’re more controlling and watchful – perhaps even as far as micromanaging.

Few things are more frustrating to an employee than being new to an organization or learning a new task and not having enough direction or input. Meanwhile, a highly experienced, knowledgeable, tenured employee doesn’t need someone peering over their shoulder and holding their hand.

Note – when it comes to leading during change, leaders tend to under-lead. When something is new, that’s when more direction is needed, not less.

7. Become a master of WHY

In the same way that preventive leaders should ask questions of others, they should also be tolerant of others’ questions for them. This willingness creates a safe environment and increases trust.

For someone to understand what they’re doing, it is often helpful for them to know why they’re doing it. A leader will struggle with a climate of trust when their people:

  • Aren’t willing to ask questions
  • Feel like you’ll get offended if they do
  • Be afraid of getting shut down after asking questoins

 People need clarity and consistency to do their jobs well, and that comes from asking questions in an environment built around trust.

Summing it all up

Engaging in critical conversations with employees can easily reveal whether you practice preventive leadership and have established a climate of trust in the workplace. If you don’t and haven’t, then these conversations can be incredibly challenging. You can also rely on prescriptive leadership techniques that help in the moment but may fail to identify or resolve underlying trust issues.

To establish and maintain trust with employees, utilize the DNA approach while also putting the seven qualities of preventive leadership into practice.

For more information about how to develop the skills associated with preventive leadership, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.