The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer for: How do you build trust with your employees? is by David DeWolf, president and CEO of 3Pillar Global.
Several years ago I visited one of our larger local offices. As I normally do, I began my visit by walking around and chatting with our rank–and–file employees. These folks are the heart and soul of any organization; by talking to them you get the best sense for the culture of the organization. After my third conversation—all of which provided a glimpse into fundamental communication issues—I began to wonder if communication was the real issue. The lack of information flow seemed to be both inordinately wide and in regards to very trivial issues.
Over the course of the next several days, I worked with the management team to resolve what we discovered was a fundamental lack of trust within the team itself. They simply weren’t talking with one another because they didn’t trust each other. Over the next three days we worked diligently to rebuild the trust that was lost. This led to a several month process of reestablishing the relationships we needed to succeed. Here’s how we did it:
I acknowledged the problem. I explained to the team why we were meeting. I shared with them the feedback I had received on the floor and my disappointment. Through conversation we eventually discovered the core issue: over time, many members of the team admitted to lacking a fundamental trust in their teammates. A prerequisite to trust is your ability, as a leader, to tell it like it is. If you don’t trust the team with your concerns, how can they trust you—or each other—with their own? My frankness demonstrated to the team that it was safe to share realities and put the issues on the table. This example provided the permission necessary for others to follow suit.
Make it safe
In addition to setting the tone, I also assured the team that we were going to work through this issue together. I explained that while I was disappointed in them, it was clear my own lack of insight and leadership allowed the issue to deteriorate to the point that it had. I brought myself into the problem and committed to working with the team to fix it.
As I demonstrated a willingness to be part of the solution (I literally rearranged my entire week in order to roll up my sleeves and work with them on this problem), they began to gain confidence that I wasn’t just beating them up, but rather committed to finding a solution. This made it safe for others to participate. They began to realize that not only was I serious about rebuilding trust, I was committed to working with them to do so. While other areas of personal and professional development can come about under pressure, I have found that trust requires the individual to feel as though they are operating in a safe environment and have the full support of their leader.
See also: The real reason your employees quit
Trust, ultimately, is all about feeling confident in expressing your true thoughts and feelings without fear of ramification. Trust is developed slowly, and incrementally, as individuals take risks, put themselves out there and are rewarded for doing so. To start the cycle, you must initiate the process. As my team’s conversation stalled at the point of acknowledging the lack of trust, and an unwillingness to begin the rebuilding efforts because of it, I turned to my local head of HR. I asked her to share with me one thing that she did not like about my leadership. I reassured her that I truly wanted to know and would be thankful for the feedback.
After processing the request, she shared with me a story about how I failed to express gratitude for something her team had done. I listened intently, and then slowly repeated what I had heard from her, in my own words. After she acknowledged that I had heard her correctly, I committed to her that I would do my best to be more thoughtful in the future. As I expressed my commitment, you could see the relief in her eyes. She was genuinely pleased to have shared her feedback and receive positive reinforcement. The virtuous cycle of trust had been reestablished.
Over the course of the next several days we took turns going around the room and sharing with each other one thing that we appreciated about each other and one thing we felt each member of the team needed to work on. As a result, we fueled the trust momentum and began to rebuild our high-performing team.