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  • Benjamin Martin

I Don't Trust You: A Leader's Nightmare

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

I hate to admit it, but unfortunately, as a leader I know what the words I don’t trust you sound like. I had spent countless hours second guessing myself, asking other’s opinions, and trying to find a way to reconnect with this person to get us back on track, but at the time I still couldn't figure out exactly where I went wrong.

In searching for answers I found none. Each day the distance between us seemed to grow larger, and unfortunately it increasingly polarized our team. Since I was the supervisor I was ethically bound to keep the events surrounding our disagreements private, an obligation he did not share in. As a result, the rumors ran rampant and one-sided. I heard things about myself, that didn’t even remotely begin to resemble what was actually happening. It was one of the most miserable times of my life. It left me wondering…am I even a leader? If so, am I a bad one?

I don’t believe that bad leaders are a systemic problem in most organizations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying bad leaders don’t exist. I’ve seen and know first-hand how infuriating it is to watch a person in a position of formal influence neglect those in his care—seemingly inconvenienced by having to work with people. But I’ve also personally had the opportunity to work with, observe, and talk with many incredible leaders who give and give from a seemingly never-ending supply of opportunity for others. Bad leaders are great at generating negative press which unfortunately employees are quick to spread, and this is why at times it might seem as though we might have so many more bad ones than good ones. But I don’t believe that to be true in my organization, and it’s probably not true in yours either.

Trust is an attribute which often is the determining factor in whether we believe someone is a good or bad leader. Bad leaders are often plagued from not having earned trust from their teams. When this happens, it's important that leaders work to create situations in which they and their teams can start to earn each other's trust back. How does one do this?

When leaders are able to provide employees assignments that will challenge them, especially when it offers a glimpse of something they are interested in and seeking, such as a promotion or career development, it shows that we trust them. Often such an assignment will require a significant investment of time to help supervise (but not micromanage) the employee as he or she works through the task that’s been given them. It’s probably faster if the leader just does the task themselves, but that’s not the point. If you can think back to the first time someone approached you with an offer that seem catered to helping you grow, then you’ll remember how much you appreciated it and how it earned that leader trust. Helping the employee figure it out both shows and builds trust.

It sounds counterintuitive, but when things are going bad leaders need to find ways to give out more trust as opposed to less. Think about a company whose culture is unhealthy. Are you picturing a boss running around saying something to the effect of “if you guys would just trust that I know what I’m doing I could fix this place and help you!” What he really should be saying is, “what opportunities can I provide you to help me fix this and help create/restore trust between us”. Often employees will have an idea of what’s going wrong, and most likely have at least an opinion on how to fix it (often even a solution). Not all problems can be fixed and all companies saved. But, at the precipice of failure, soliciting input from our team members is a way to help keep the team together and on task.

When we disagree with someone who works for us our tendency as leaders is to trust them less, rather than more. Instead of offering them more opportunity to gain an understanding of our perspective, we punish their challenges to our title and positions by choosing to isolate them from projects, communication, or even their team. When most employees challenge us it’s because it typically is because as leaders we aren’t fully engaging them--we are not delivering what they feel they need to be successful. There are moments in which employees are acting out because they don’t fit in with the company’s values and mission which will require coaching and/or counseling. But most of the time employees are either acting on a problem that is facing them at home or they are not reacting well with changes at work that threaten the trust they have been previously shown.

This experience is one of the reasons that I have become so passionate about the idea of leaders supporting leaders. Unfortunately, I know what it feels like first hand to loose the trust of an employee, then a team. I’ve learned an incredible amount over the last six years on how to better cultivate trust and remove the barriers that stand in the way of creating it. This article is but just a few of the things that time has offered me the chance perspective of seeing. Now seems a good a time as any to remind you if you are still reading this:

Leaders reap the qualities and performance in their teams that they take the time to sow. Trust is but one example of such an attribute. If you don’t feel that you are harvesting any positive qualities or performances from your team, then you should closely examine the efforts you are taking to cultivate them. How could you expect your team to do anything consistently, willingly, or risk going beyond what is expected if you as the leader are not first willing to do it yourself.

Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at

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