Building Team Trust When Some Don’t Trust Anyone

Dan was recognized as a strong and effective leader. He had earned the respect from the CEO and other senior leaders at his company.

In his newest assignment, he had been working hard to establish the framework of trust that he knew would be vital to the team’s success.

From the very first day as the new division head, he was speaking with his direct reports one-on-one and in small groups, using his best practices to tear down walls and create the right harmony he knew he needed.

Yet he could sense total pushback from two of his longest-tenured technical people. Sandy and Ted were not buying it.

Dan decided to take his concerns directly to both Ted and Sandy. One by one he called them in for a private chat.

He opened with acknowledging how important he thought their roles were to the team’s success. They each agreed with that. Then he asked a fairly pointed question.

co-workers not trusting

Ted Went First

Dan started “I’ve been watching the development of this leadership team. We’ve been working to understand the clarity of our purpose and align our resources for the best outcomes toward our goals. Yet I sense a reluctance from you. I’d really like to understand what it is that is blocking things for you.”

Ted was pretty quick to respond. He said “Dan, I haven’t been honest with you. I’ve been at this company for a long time. This latest change is too much for me. I’m eligible to retire and I think now is the right time to do that.”

Dan was not surprised, that made perfect sense. He responded “Ted, I’d sure hate to lose you, but I respect everything you’ve done here. Is there anything that might help you change your mind?”

Ted smiled a wry grin. “Thanks, but no. It’s time. This has nothing to do with you or the company. I just need to get serious with my own situation and quit holding you guys back. It’s been a good run. I want to leave a good legacy.”

Dan said “Thank you for that honesty. If there’s anything I can do while you get situated, let me know.”

On the Other Hand

Sandy’s talk didn’t go so well. Dan opened the same way but got a totally different reaction.

Sandy shook her head and replied “I just don’t trust these people. I’ve worked with a few of them before and know what they do behind people’s backs.”

Dan thought about how contrary this sounded based on his own history with the team from prior assignments. He knew about their performance elsewhere and the accolades they had gotten from others, both above and below them in the organization.

He simply said to Sandy, “Tell me more.”

“Well…..” and her list began. Interesting to Dan was the level of petty complaints he heard. He was shocked at just how petty many of these grievances sounded when compared to the duties Sandy had on her plate.

He had not known Sandy that well from before, but had always relied on her technical delivery of work product and was pleased. Yet hearing her voiced concerns about others made him realize one big thing about Sandy.

She really didn’t trust anyone.

The Leader’s Boundaries

In the effort to be an effective leader, there are many things you must do but there are some you cannot do.

Becoming a therapist for an employee who exhibits behaviors that are not conducive to good teamwork is just not something you should delve into.

We’ve all been there before, realizing you have an employee who has some psycho-emotional baggage that will not allow open and reliable cooperation on the team.

So what do you do?

First, don’t let it get personal. Stick to team outcomes when describing expectations. Make those expectations very clear.

Shifting the Spotlight

Watch for tell-tale signs of behavioral problems. An untrusting soul may often try to shift the spotlight away from themselves onto others.

anger at work

Examples include placing blame for minor matters and accusing others of “failing” to deliver properly. They somehow think that constantly churning the team around them will keep the focus away from their own issues.

Someone who is more trusting will accept responsibility and become vulnerable to things needing more attention.

I’ve seen situations where the highest performer on the team was actually the least trusting individual. Despite adding significant value to the team, they cause so much confusion and disruption, their actual worth starts to be questionable.

This latter situation may be the leader’s biggest challenge. If you’ve ever been frustrated by someone’s behavior yet asked yourself something like this “Can I afford to lose them?”, you should start the process to do just that.

Keeping a team member who will never trust the rest of the team will derail everything you may try to accomplish. It happens every time.

Question: When was a time that you had someone on your team who couldn’t trust others? Leave a comment.