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What CEOs still get wrong about running a business

August 26, 2015, 11:00 AM UTC

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 to the question “How do you build trust with your employees?” is by Steve Sims, chief design officer at Badgeville.

We imagine businesses to be places where bosses scrutinize and evaluate employees, but judgment is a two-way street. If you’re the CEO, employees are examining your every move. Your leadership, management style and decision-making prowess are all under constant judgment. As much as you want to know which employees you can depend on, they want to know if they can trust you and if you are the person to lead them to victory.

Consider that when employees evaluate you, they are looking at it from the perspective of how everything affects them personally. Each one of your employees is silently asking themselves questions such as:

  • Is the company going to win (does it have staying power)?
  • Can I grow in my career here?
  • Will the company treat me fairly?
  • Will I get the recognition I deserve?
  • Do I like coming to work everyday?
  • Do I like the people, my boss and the culture?

Connecting and creating trust with your employees is the first step if they’re to answer these questions, which requires putting yourself on the path to sustained employee engagement and retention.

Below are some suggestions to get you on your way to building a trust-filled environment.

Set clear expectations
Good hires want to succeed, but when the definition of success is ambiguous, they feel stressed, suspicious and uncertain.

Explain what you are looking for and how you will evaluate performance toward the goals that have been set. Is it about meeting deadlines and completing X volume of work? Is it about generating Y amount of revenue in sales, or Z levels of engagement in marketing? Be sure to quantify standards so that employees know what is expected of them and what they need to do in order to deliver on that expectation.

See also: The secret perk that helps build trust with employees

When engaging with employees in a real conversation, do your best to listen to them.

If they feel you’re not listening, why should they listen to you? Clarifying and confirming is one technique that some good leaders use. Listen to what is being said and repeat it back to them. For example: “If I hear you correctly, you are saying…” Note that this doesn’t mean you agree with the person you’re talking to, but it does validate that you were listening and heard what he or she said.


Provide feedback
Improvement is intrinsically rewarding. Good employees want to master their work and want feedback on how they are progressing.

When delivering positive feedback, be specific and sincere. As Tom Rath says in his book Are You Fully Charged?, “Simply telling someone they did a ‘good job’ on a project is nice but not very helpful, especially if your comments lack sincerity.” He goes on to say that you need to be specific with your positive feedback: “A series of six experiments published in 2014 reveals why specificity is essential for motivating other people.” I whole-heartedly agree. When praise is given for a specific task well done, it allows the employee to feel validated for the accomplishment (“the CEO knows what I did,” for example).

In terms of negative feedback, employees are often unaware they’re underperforming. In this case, it’s important to give them feedback as soon as possible and in the right way. Believe it or not, when delivered correctly, constructive criticism and candid feedback can go a long way in building trust.

Simple common techniques — like the compliment sandwich (positive, critique, positive) — can help soften the blow of delivering feedback that may be tough for your employee to hear. By providing positive comments with the negative, it may help with the employee’s reception of your message.

Lastly, in terms of building trust, it’s better to deliver any feedback — either positive or negative — than to not communicate at all. When you don’t communicate, people fill the absence of information with their own story, and you then have no ability to influence how your employees perceive their situation.

See also: Why you should never cover up your mistakes at work

Provide adequate support and know where the problem is
Can employees meet the expectations you’ve set? If not, why? As CEO, you shoulder some of the responsibility for making sure your team has the right environment and tools to get the job done. Maybe the company’s file-sharing technology has slowed down the entire sales team. Maybe your training program for new customer service reps is ineffective. Perhaps you gave one team a debilitating budget.

If one person out of 100 can’t meet expectations, the problem is probably with that person and the case should be evaluated on its own merits. However, if no one can meet the objectives, then the problem may be with the environment, the supporting structure you’ve put in place, or the expectations themselves. In this case, it may be wise to look into adjusting the environment or the structure rather than attach blame to an individual or group. Approaching problems in a logical, solution-oriented manner combined with intelligent transparency on what is going on will help preserve trust with the rank and file. Using this approach enables employees to understand why things happen in a certain way.

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Be fair with your attention
Be wary of favoritism. It’s usually subtle and subconscious rather than overt and intentional. Maybe you took a salesperson to lunch after he/she closed an enterprise account, but you hardly acknowledged the smart marketing campaign that generated the lead in the first place. Whether or not there is any meaning behind it, someone will notice. It’s for this reason that you as a manager should do your best to be aware of how interactions are perceived at all levels.

To the extent that you can (and where it feels authentic and sincere), seek out opportunities to acknowledge different people, teams and groups. Assume that many successes will be invisible to you. By casting a wide net of recognition, the playing field will seem more level and worthwhile to compete on.

Have integrity
Ultimately, we trust people who are consistent, confident and stick to their word. The above advice should help you establish patterns that exude trust. If you’re successful, employees will think, “The CEO has our back.”

Keep in mind that it’s hard to create trust but easy to destroy it. If you mess up and somehow violate the trust of your employees, you’ll need to take responsibility — quickly. How you behave in the toughest moments will leave a glow — or stain — on their perception of your leadership.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: How do you build trust with your employees?

Why employers need to stop policing social media by Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite.

You can’t be a great leader without doing this by Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit.

Proof you’re not making business decisions quick enough by Todd McKinnon, CEO and co-founder of Okta.

Managers, here’s why honest feedback matters at work by Rich Cavallaro, president and CEO of Skanska USA.

How a boombox helped this CEO build trust with his employees by Kyle Wong, CEO of Pixlee.

Want your employees to work harder? Eliminate your officesby Lars Albright, co-founder and CEO of SessionM.

How this CEO regained trust with his employees by David DeWolf, president and CEO of 3Pillar Global.

This is the best way to build trust with your employees by Ryan Harwood, CEO of PureWow.

The real reason your employees quit by Robert Hohman, CEO of Glassdoor.