Trust Is an Action Verb

While you may think you are a trustworthy manager, your actions may communicate otherwise to your employees.

By Randy G. Pennington Feb 1, 2012
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February CoverRarely do employees admit to managers that they don't trust them. Yet lack of trust is a pervasive ailment undermining employee engagement and productivity. Often, corporate leaders don't discover the lack of trust until either a manager or an employee leaves.

The words "I don't trust you" may not be said out loud, but you may be facing a lack of trust if employees are:

  • Withholding information and using selective communication.
  • Persistently questioning goals, strategies, actions and decisions.
  • Protecting their self-interest at the expense of the team or organization.
  • Acting inconsistently with the organization's values.
  • Exhibiting low or diminishing commitment and engagement.

Managers with good intentions understand that maintaining trust is critical, and they may be trustworthy or believe themselves trustworthy. However, their employees may have a different view, unless managers are outwardly taking the steps necessary to build trust. We evaluate ourselves by our intentions. Others—not knowing those intentions—evaluate us on their perceptions of our behavior and performance.

Building Trust

Trust lies at the heart of every strong relationship. Here are six actions you can take to demonstrate your good intentions:

Follow through.

Mistrust arises when managers don't do what they said they would do. Most employees understand that some circumstances prevent you from keeping a commitment. They forgive an occasional lapse. But a habit of not following through tells people that you can't be trusted.

This is an easy concept that requires a great deal of discipliune to execute. If you can't meet a promised deadline, tell employees in advance. If you promise to run interference for your team, make sure your sense of urgency matches theirs and report the results. Calling others out on failed promises helps instill trust. For example, if you tell your team that being at work on time is important, address the chronically late team member.


Create opportunities to communicate expectations clearly, and build a shared understanding of priorities. Talk straight, and talk often. Your team knows that there is information you cannot share. They want to know what you can talk about, and they want to conclude that you are telling them the truth rather than spinning the message for your sole benefit or for that of the company.

And, a reputation for listening and actually caring about what others are saying builds trust.

Get better.

Would you blindly follow someone out of a burning building if you were convinced that he had no idea where he was going? Why would you expect employees to trust a minimally competent manager to provide direction?

Your team improves when you improve. They will trust your directions more and question you less in uncertain times when they conclude that you know what you are doing.

Be consistent.

Have you ever worked for a difficult boss? You probably learned to survive the chaos by practicing self-preservation.

We value and trust consistency in action and response. When consistency is absent, people are likely to protect their own interests at the expense of the team. When consistency is present—especially when combined with open communication—people tell you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear. They are more confident, and they are not constantly looking to see how you are going to react to every incident or piece of bad news.

When consistency is present ... people tell you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear.

Be clear about your values.
 What principles are so important that you would never compromise them? The most difficult challenges we face rarely involve a choice between a clear right and wrong. More often, it is a choice between competing values that forces us into decisions between the better of two acceptable options or the lesser of two poor ones.

The clearer you are on your values, the more trust you will build.

Have their backs.

There will come a time when you either stand up for your team or throw them under the bus. You can be an advocate for them or allow them to flounder on their own. The outcome of standing up for your team is less important than the action itself.

Your team knows that you can't control every decision by corporate executives. But you will earn their respect and trust when they know that you will stand up for them even when doing so is inconvenient.

Strong relationships grounded in trust are critical. Believing that—and acting on that belief—makes a notable difference.

The author is founder of the Pennington Group, a business performance consulting firm in Addison, Texas. He is author of On My Honor, I Will: The Journey to Integrity-Driven Leadership​ (PenlandScott Publishers, 2009). He can be reached at

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