How to Hit the Reset Button When You’ve Lost Your Team’s Trust

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In my last post, I talked about the importance of trust, and the underlying vulnerability that enables trust, in high-performing teams. I posited that behind almost every difficult interpersonal situation there’s a faulty trust dynamic. And I suggested a methodology for identifying the trust dynamic at the root of issues.

That’s all great, but what if you’ve lost the trust of your team or your peers? What can you do?

Hitting the reset button when trust has been damaged is difficult, but it can be done. It takes a lot of vulnerability and a willingness to see yourself and your actions clearly. Both of those things can be painful, but they’re also incredible instigators of growth.

Before we tackle the resetting process, here are just a few ways to know that you’ve lost your team’s trust:

  1. When you engage your team for feedback on your leadership or performance, you hear crickets.
  2. Your 360 review contains any of the following key words and phrases:
  • I feel alienated.
  • thrown under the bus
  • plans/priorities keep changing and I don’t know why
  • I’m not acknowledged or given credit in front of others for my work.
  • no plan or strategy
  • I’m afraid for my job.
  • I don’t know where I stand.
  • politics and backstabbing on our team

3. Your team won’t take risks because they fear failure will have dire consequences

4. Collaborative exercises and brainstorming feel like pulling teeth. Nobody speaks up.

Sound familiar?

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Here, then, are four steps to hitting the reset button:

  1. Investigate with an open heart
  2. Fully claim your contribution to the problem
  3. Commit to change and share your commitment with vulnerability
  4. Set up progress check-ins

Step 1: Investigate with an open heart

This may sound obvious, but you can’t change what you don’t understand. Step one is a deep dive into the reasons you’ve lost trust, which is more challenging than it sounds. How do you ask people who don’t trust you to be honest with you about why they don’t trust you? You have a couple of options. First, you can ask someone else to conduct a 360 review on your behalf with a specific eye toward drawing out the trust issues. This may be a good choice in situations where communication and trust have eroded so severely that it just isn’t possible to elicit the truth. Second, you can attempt to have the conversation yourself. Third, you can do both.

Tips for having the conversation yourself:

  • Start from a place of “I am at fault. I am comfortable with being wrong.”
  • Authenticity is everything, and that starts with your attitude and your internal reasons for pursuing this. There’s a difference between “I need to find out why people are upset so I can come up with the right thing to say to fix this,” and “I want to understand how my behavior has affected others so I can learn and improve.”
  • Consider beginning with a group conversation and then scheduling follow-ups with each person individually. If you can get just one person in the group to begin talking about your mistakes, other people will follow. Normally, group pile-on isn’t a productive strategy, but in this case, it may serve to get the ball rolling.
  • Make a personal plea for feedback and establish that this is a safe zone with no consequences. Ask for honesty as a personal favor; after all, your team is really helping you out by showing you your areas of potential growth.

Plant your neon stop sign

The first thing you’ll need to do, whether you’re having someone conduct a 360 review or you’re collecting feedback yourself, is to loudly and clearly call attention to the fact that you’re initiating a change. The idea is that you’ve come to a place where you’re saying, “Everything that came before this is the past, not to be repeated. Everything after this will be different.” I call this planting your neon stop sign. A neon stop sign is unable to be ignored. It gets your team’s attention and signals that you’re seeking change.

Simply put, your neon stop sign is your declaration of intent. Literally, you will gather your team together and talk to them. Example: “I want to ask you for your help. I realize that I haven’t been the leader you’ve needed me to be, and I’ve lost your trust. I am telling you today that I want to turn things around. I can’t change what I don’t understand, though, so I’m asking for your honesty. I know it’s scary to give me frank feedback, but I promise you are safe and nothing you say will be used against you.”

Some or all of your team may feel more comfortable giving feedback anonymously. Create a mechanism by which they can do this. It’s very easy to create an anonymous Survey Monkey survey, for example. Or you can request that they send feedback to an HR mediator if you prefer.

The most important thing is that you gather feedback. You may feel like you already have an understanding of the problem, but I can almost promise you that you do not. You may understand some of the issues, but most likely there will be feedback that surprises you. That’s where the gold is.

I like to think about this phase through the lens of product development. Great product leaders don’t start with proposing solutions. They painstakingly go through the process of fully understanding the problem space first, using a variety of methodologies…quantitative analytics, yes…but also qualitative customer interviews and surveys. That’s exactly how you should approach understanding your team’s needs and the current state of affairs.

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Before you set sail, draw your island

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know if you’ve arrived. Before you put your boat of self-improvement in the water, define the destination. What does your island look like? In other words, imagine the type of leader you’d like to be. Imagine the ideal dynamic between you and your team, and between your team members. Imagine what feeling you’d like people to have when they’re interacting with you. How would you like someone who works for you to describe you to a friend? Write down your vision in as much detail as possible.

Next, solicit your team’s vision of an ideal leader. Give a prompt like: Imagine a leader that helps you achieve our business and mission goals while building a great culture. Imagine you leave work and meet a friend for dinner, and while talking about work, you tell your friend that your manager is the best you’ve ever had. Now describe the attributes of that leader.

Finally, given your team’s stated needs and your own vision of ideal leadership, take some time to put it all together and “draw your island”, so to speak. Weed out the attributes that don’t feel authentic to you and put together the rest. Now you have an aspirational destination.

Photo by Rodolpho Zanardo from Pexels

Step 2: Fully claim your contribution to the problem

In my experience, this is the most difficult part of the process, and the part that’s most likely to go wrong and derail the entire effort. Seeing yourself clearly and bravely facing your own mistakes can be so painful and humiliating that some people will find every excuse not to do it. It’s common, when reviewing feedback, to feel like defending yourself against every accusation and even to feel like going on the offense and retaliating. Rather than telling you about one of the many, many times I’ve seen leaders handle tough feedback poorly, I’d like to tell you about the person who handled it the best I’ve ever seen. I think this story clearly illustrates the benefit of claiming your contribution to a problem.

Several years ago, I hired someone in a creative and strategic position. I’ll call him Gus. After Gus’ first year, he had a 360 review, and the feedback indicated a clear loss of trust. Gus is extremely creative and visionary, and he has a really big heart. But his colleagues reported that they felt he was dismissive of them, sometimes arrogant, and they felt he wasn’t sincere in his stated desire to be collaborative. In addition to having a big heart, Gus is also quite sensitive, so this feedback was devastating. After he received his 360 report, Gus requested a meeting with me. I prepared myself for him to rebut the issues one by one in order to save face. Instead, I got a masterclass in emotional intelligence and accountability. Gus told me he was shocked by the feedback, and then he said, “It’s clear that I haven’t done a good job of showing people who I really am. And I’m going to put everything I have into showing them who I really am.” And he meant it. Long before his next 360, his direct reports and teammates were taking me aside and telling me what a drastic change they’d seen in Gus, and that they absolutely loved working with him. Years later, Gus is one of the true leaders in my company, and one of the most trusted. Had he chosen to protect his pride rather than claim his contribution, I’m pretty confident he wouldn’t have found the level of success that he is enjoying today.

After you receive your team’s feedback, I want you to do the following: First, send an email to your team. Let them know you’ve received their feedback and that you’re going to review it and do some deep thinking. Tell them you plan to set up a team meeting very soon to learn more and make some commitments. And, most importantly, thank them sincerely for being so generous with their time and energy, for their vulnerability, and for their commitment to helping you discover where your opportunities for improvement lie.

Then comes the tough part. Sit with your feedback and the discomfort it stirs in you. Notice when you feel yourself mentally pushing away an aspect of your team’s observations about you. Catch yourself planning a response that includes a defense of your behavior or anything that questions the validity of people’s stated experiences with you. Stop yourself when fantasizing about retaliating against them and ruining their careers forever (I’m joking…sort of). Instead, tell yourself that you trust their experiences of you and with you. If there’s a big gap between your intentions and their perceptions, as there was with Gus, repeat his words to yourself: Obviously, I’ve not done a good job of showing them who I really am.

Photo by Alexas Fotos from Pexels

Step 3: Make commitments and share them with vulnerability

Call your team together to have an honest conversation about the problem and your contribution. Don’t hold back: three of my favorite words in the English language are “I screwed up”, and this is a great time to bust those out. Remember, if you stop short of taking responsibility 100% for your contribution, trust is just not possible. Acknowledge not just your actions but how they affected people on your team and their trust.

Drop the walls. You don’t need to hide what you’re feeling. For instance, you might say “It’s important to me to be good at my job and to be a good leader. And I have insecurities around that. I think I overcompensated for those insecurities by trying to have too much control. Instead of being a good leader, I created an environment of fear, and I see that.”

Talk about what you want to see, and share the “island” you drew in step 1. Create a vision of the relationship and team dynamic that everyone can be excited about. “Here’s what I want. I want to be someone you can come to when you need help, but not someone who micromanages you. I want to help you reach your career goals by supporting you and creating space for you to shine. I want us to have so much trust in each other that there’s never fear of ulterior motives. And, above all, I want us to have so much fun together while we tackle these business goals and customer problems together.”

Get vulnerable. Establishing trust is like starting a new relationship: somebody has to make the first move, right? Get personal. Let people see who you are. Once you open up and claim your contribution and humanize yourself in your team’s eyes, most likely your teammates will start to recognize and claim their own contributions to the situation. And that’s actually an important point: I keep stressing how important it is for you to humble yourself and recognize your role in the problem, but every single person involved in a faulty trust dynamic has some contribution as well. You can only claim your own, but you’ll know that the conversation is going well and trust is being reset when your team starts to volunteer their own areas of culpability.

The last part of the conversation is dedicated to making specific commitments for change. Choose three or four substantial commitments, write them down, and ask your team for feedback before you fully commit. One conflict I helped to resolve ended with the team lead making this following commitments:

  1. I will stop micromanaging you, and instead will allow you to demonstrate your expertise and to make mistakes without fear.
  2. I will be collaborative in brainstorming meetings. Rather than coming to the table with my mind made up, I’ll truly listen to and engage with your ideas and we will come to an agreement together.
  3. I will meet with each member of this team to learn about your ultimate career aspirations and to come up with a plan of action to help you move toward your goals. We will meet quarterly to check in on these.
  4. I will take more time with my communication so I stop coming off as abrupt and disrespectful. I will speak with thoughtfulness and empathy.

Once your team agrees that you’ve landed on the right commitments, ask for their help in keeping you accountable. If they’re uncomfortable calling you out, come up with a code word they can say to let you know when you’re falling short and need to sharpen your attention to your commitments.

Photo by Larissa Gies on Unsplash

Step 4: Set up progress check-ins

How many times have you heard people make commitments to change and then never heard from them about it again? Yeah, lots. Me, too. That’s why the final step in the process is scheduling and holding at least two progress check-ins with your team. Schedule the first one 4–6 weeks after your initial meeting and, if that one goes well, schedule the second one for three months later.

In the first meeting, you’ll read each of your commitments out loud and you’ll ask for feedback on how you’re doing with each one. People have a tendency to go easy on someone who’s making any effort at all, so in order to get genuine feedback, ask slightly leading questions. For example, instead of just asking, “How have I been doing with my commitment to be kinder?” ask for an example of a time you succeeded with this since your meeting…and also a time you’ve fallen short. Make notes of any tweaks you need to add to your commitments. If you’re driven by data, ask for a numeric score on each commitment.

The second check-in meeting should follow the same format. If, at the end of the second meeting, everyone agrees you’ve kept your commitments, that’s great! But you’re not quite done: next, have a conversation to make sure that those commitments were enough. Has the trust dynamic truly improved? Can you collectively point to tangible changes for the better in productivity, team happiness, and productivity? In my experience, the answer is usually a resounding yes. If it isn’t, go through steps 1–4 again (I promise it will be less painful this time around).

When all is said and done, you will have done something that very few leaders successfully accomplish: reset a broken trust dynamic, become intimately familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses, and used that information to become a better, more effective leader. That’s really something to be proud of!

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And one final note. I’m really passionate about helping leaders cultivate trust in the workplace. If I can help you or answer any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Socially-conscious product leader, Lean Startup evangelist, COO and Chief Product Officer at Adopt-a-Pet.com