A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a mentee within SAP.
This person explained to me that they had inherited a new internal team, and one of the members of the team had expressed a lack of trust. “He doesn’t trust me as a leader to support him,” this mentee told me. “How do I repair that? How do I build trust with someone who has expectations of me before we’ve even had the chance to build our relationship?”
This problem, especially within large organizations, is more common than people realize.
In large companies, teams change regularly whether due to organizational reshaping, leadership rotation, or departures. Whatever the reason, these changes can oftentimes feel like starting a completely new job. You have a new boss, a new group of peers, and perhaps even a new objective. This churn can result in a loss of trust between leaders and their teams, even when it’s not personal.
Which is why, whenever there are trust issues between team members, there is really only one question to ask: “Where do we go from here?”
I have worked within large organizations for most of my career, and maintaining positive, open, communicative relationships with those you work with is one of the highest priorities for company leaders. And rebuilding trust when things go awry is always priority number one.
Here are a few things you can do to prevent trust from eroding in the first place, and what you can do to mend relationships if and when issues arise.
1. Assess people’s willingness to have open conversations, and take disengagement as a warning signal.
One of the worst-case scenarios you can experience as a manager or leader is asking people on your team, “How’s it going?” and them responding, “Everything is fine,” only to quit a few days or weeks later.
This reveals a total breakdown of trust.
When trust is gone, individual contributors and team members tend to “opt out” of engaging. They become less open and tend to just focus on their work, which furthers the cycle of them feeling unsupported and unheard, leading to more feelings of distrust, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle. Which is why, as a leader, your job is to find ways to create situations where you can have conversations that help you understand what they need and how you can best provide it.
As a father to teenagers, I run into this same dynamic at home. A dwindling desire to engage in productive conversation about issues or challenges usually means there’s something lingering beneath the surface.
It’s your job to figure out what it is and find a positive, productive path forward.
2. Determine where the trust breakdown is occurring: is it me or am I just the representative?
Sometimes, employees don’t have issues with you as a manager, but have issues with someone farther up the chain—you just happen to be the lucky representative.
As a manager, you might feel that you have a positive relationship with your direct reports and team members. But when you talk to people individually, you may unearth that while they want to trust you, they don’t trust someone in the management chain above you. As a result, they end up (consciously or unconsciously) feeling like they cannot be as open and honest with you because they are aware of who you report to—even though they rarely, if ever, interface with that person.
Determining where the trust breakdown is occurring is crucial to catching problems early. Sometimes this means having hard conversations with those above you, tactfully explaining how their actions (or inaction) are impacting individuals further down the hierarchy. Sometimes these situations are unavoidable, but great organizations learn to listen for this sort of feedback, and then take actionable steps to remedy the situation, even if it is only providing greater transparency on why changes are being made.
3. When you have conversations with employees where trust is an issue, be vulnerable.
Once you have identified where the trust is breaking down, the best way to open the door to an open and honest conversation is to allow yourself to be vulnerable.
Even if you don’t see their situation as they do, or have a different opinion about perceived slights or grievances, you have to be willing to put your opinions aside and listen. Even if you don’t agree with the basis for their feelings, they are valid feelings because, well, their feelings are theirs. Helping them realize that they will not be judged for having feelings will shift the dynamic and help them feel heard. This opens the path to finding common ground and moving forward together.
This is what the majority of my conversation with my mentee was about.
At the end of the day, people just want to be heard. And when they don’t feel heard, that’s when trust starts to fade away and the defenses go up—because now, they can’t trust you to even listen to them. And so, in order to repair that broken trust, you have to begin by hearing them, practicing active listening, saying back to them what you’re hearing, and genuinely trying to see things from their point of view.
Again, you don’t have to agree with them—as your opinion is no less valid than theirs—in order to validate their feelings.
Hear them. Validate them. And then, once some of that trust has been rebuilt, help them understand where there’s an opportunity to move forward together.