A lot of deliberate effort goes into becoming a good manager. Yet, even good managers can lose their direct reports’ trust through (often) subtle habits and behaviors. Based on my experience, here are a few important ones.
Nothing kills trust faster between a manager and a direct report than blindsiding on performance feedback. A manager who keeps telling you, “everything is great, keep doing what you are doing,” yet on review time, they point out things that they expected you to do differently six months ago! This is the least subtle of all the behaviors in this post.
Blindsiding is the killer blow to trust and a cardinal sin of poor communication. Whatever the cause, recovering from this breach of trust is extremely hard. As a direct report, this leads to constant questioning and second-guessing, making it hard to take anything said by the manager at face value.
Bad-mouthing folks behind their back
As a manager, you are talking to a team member with whom you have a good rapport. You are frustrated with a colleague or team member. Venting might be OK (though questionable), but bad-mouthing is undoubtedly wrong! Managers may disagree with a colleague’s decisions, but they must avoid putting down their skills or ability. This trait becomes even more egregious if the direct employee has seen the manager publicly banter, praise, and nod along with this colleague.
This behavior leads to downstream effects that erode trust. Consider that the direct report has seen the manager be effusive about a colleague in public yet completely trample them in private. It is natural for the direct report to wonder whether the manager also bad-mouths them in their absence. Or whether the manager questions their abilities in front of other colleagues behind their back. Even if the relationship between the employee and the direct manager is excellent, what happens when there are future disagreements?
“We” when things are going well, “you” when not
Another way to lose trust as a manager is to pretend that you are a team when attempting to solve a problem, yet the direct report is at fault at the first sign of trouble.
We (the direct report and the manager) are together trying to solve a complex problem with no obvious solution. Naturally, it might require multiple iterations, and the first attempt is not guaranteed to succeed. This working model is expected and is how complex issues are generally untangled. However, it is a terrible look if the manager distances themselves at the first sign of the approach not working, throwing their direct report under the bus.
This backstabbing makes it hard to trust the manager for future risky endeavors.
When a manager frequently gets distracted in the middle of 1-on-1s, they signal that the employee is less valuable than whatever email, slack message, notification, etc., happens to arrive at their screen.
We all get distracted once in a while. I get it. The frequency is what makes it a serious issue.
Another way to lose trust is to show arbitrary favoritism towards some direct reports at the cost of others. Two examples of how such behavior can show up:
- Treating the same suggestion made by two direct reports differently based on who is part of the “in” group.
- Arbitrarily re-assigning a project championed and started by one direct report to another without any clear rationale or justification.
The lack of consistency and transparency leads to the team being unable to trust the manager, leading to resentment.
Collectively, the above behaviors lead to fragmenting trust and team morale. Direct reports not part of the “in” group feel excluded, and the manager implicitly hampers their career growth. In my experience, managers who recognize and actively avoid these behaviors go a long way toward cultivating trust with their direct reports.