Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

Building trust in the workplace. [Interview]

This episode discovers how managers and leaders can navigate issues of trust in the workplace.


You probably trust a lot of people in your life, your family, friends, coworkers. But you trust some people more than others. Why is that? Well, let's break it down. To trust someone is to firmly believe in their reliability, to have confidence in their consistency. It's hard to trust someone if you don't believe they'll uphold a certain level of reliability. Like if you're talking with a coworker about a sensitive topic that no one else knows about, and you ask them to not tell anyone, yet within days, maybe even hours, you find out that others know about that topic, your trust in that coworker will likely decrease. Because they've offered evidence of inconsistency. You ask one thing, they do another.

Well let's get even simpler about trust in the workplace. No secrets, just your day-to-day responsibilities. Imagine that you as a manager ask a team member to do something by the end of the day, then they say, "Yep, you can count on me." But by the end of the day, the task wasn't done. That can hurt your trust in that team member because they said one thing and did another. The people you trust more tend to be those individuals who have proven themselves to be reliable.

In the workplace, you need to be able to trust as many people in your organization as you can. Organizations are made up of people working toward a common goal of having a successful company, and believing others are reliable is key to getting anything done. Without trust, you get micromanagement, stress, broken channels of communication, non-existent collaboration. If you can't trust anyone, then you'll spend all your time wondering or worrying about whether things are getting done at all, rather than focusing on ways to improve your team and the organization.

The group of people in an organization that are arguably the most important to have employees trust are managers, and especially senior leaders. These strategic and tactical decision makers hold a lot of power in organizations, and trust in them is needed for businesses to thrive. Higher trust in senior leaders is associated with lower intentions to quit, increased commitment to the organization, and higher job satisfaction. That puts you as a manager in an interesting spot when your team members don't trust senior leadership.

To address that dilemma, I interviewed Wendell Sherrell, Vice President of Human Resources at Aviat Networks. Throughout the interview, Wendell talks about ways that managers and leaders can navigate issues of trust in the workplace, especially when employees don't trust senior leadership.



Senior leaders make decisions all the time and it's rare that everyone in an organization would agree with those decisions. Sometimes those feelings can even lead to distrusting senior leadership, so how can people managers address times when employees don't agree with or trust senior leaders?

Yeah, I think the biggest thing is for leaders to be in constant conversation with their teams, and in those conversations being as transparent and sharing as much information as they can. A good example, if a senior leader talks about a particular direction in the organization that might cause some discomfort. What I've often seen is the direct manager of employees, if they're able to provide context, both from a business perspective and from an impact perspective. If they can't, to commit to the employee that they will go explore and find out.

The other piece to that is, when talking to employees about their feelings, that are characterized as, "I trust or I distrust," to really explore what that's about. Is it about a lack of understanding, a lack of perspective on what would drive a certain type of decision? And often times what I've experienced in my career, if leaders are able to fill in more of the blanks, they can oftentimes serve as the bridge for employees.

Many times leaders are in a situation based on the nature of this decision, the scope of the decision, that they're limited into what they could say in a particular point or time, and that often leads to some distrust. Employees would go, "There seems like there's more to the story. There seems like they weren't telling us everything." And many times that's true. Where the direct manager can play a very key role in that, is to help explain why that leader may or may not be able to provide more information.

A great example of that would be if an organization was about to announce some major restructuring, that could be material from a shareholder perspective, well a senior leader is required to follow certain protocols before they can ever share that information. It's not that they don't want to share it, but they can't. Right? And so that message that might be delivered ahead of all of the stakeholder approvals, might seem incomplete, but it is. But how that immediate leader can help close the gaps is to say, "There is a timing issue around when certain things can be communicated and when certain things cannot be communicated," and that oftentimes helps kind of close the gap.


If senior leadership need to be in constant communication, constant conversation with employees about their decisions, giving as much information as they can at the time, would you say that managers then are kind of agents of reducing uncertainty, to help forward those particular conversations and communications?

Well, I think it's two ways. I think there's the amplifying, clarifying of a message, but then there's also the responsibility of a leader going back and saying, "Here's some areas that are not clear. Can you help me connect the dots?" Then sharing with the direct line teams. I think it's really a two way.

But I think the most important thing is getting employees to understand positive intention, right? Just because something is unclear does not necessarily equal that someone is withholding information for a negative reason. Or it just can be very much around the type of information, when it can be released.

And I've also learned that many times employees struggle with messages when they feel like they can't get clarity. And so if that next level leader can go and say, "I commit to you that I'm going to go raise your question, see if I can get clarity, and then come back and share." I think that goes a long way in helping to bridge or connect the dots for employees.


It sounds like managers can be thought of as communication bridges in this sense. And not only do they, as you said amplify and clarify the message from senior leadership to their teams, but they can also raise, bring up those points that the team may not know about, and perhaps the manager themselves may not even necessarily know. One question I have to follow up with that is, what should managers do when they themselves don't agree or perhaps don't trust senior leadership? And then maybe two questions in one because not agreeing, not trusting, I know are kind of two very different things.

Yeah, I think it's okay... I think leaders have to be careful around saying... In their capacity as leaders, I think there's an opportunity for leaders to be intentional about whether they confirm they trust or don't trust. I think there's an organizational responsibility to say, "I see where you're coming from. I appreciate your point of view, but let's see if we can figure it out."

And I also think that it's okay for leaders to be supportive to say, "I'm having some similar questions myself," to help create that connection. I think when leaders sometimes take on, "I don't trust leadership," there's a missed opportunity with that, right? Part of their role is to help create the alignment within the organization. Although it's very real. But I think leaders that are really effective, are able to kind of, to separate, "I agree with you around the question. Let's not jump too quickly to whether we trust or not trust based on the information." I've often found that there's more to a story. There's always more to a story.

And what I've found is sometimes with younger leaders, leaders that have less experience, there is this tendency to kind of identify, and that in that process of being empathetic, they'll often say, "Well, I don't trust as well." But when I see those situations, I really try to encourage leaders to kind of separate themselves from the role that they play, in helping leadership effectively communicate.


Let's say managers find themselves in a situation in which they have amplified the communication that senior leadership is giving the decisions that they've made to their teams, and the teams still aren't really satisfied with it. That manager then elevates those concerns upward, and they're either not met very well, or they're even met with a little backlash from others. What do you believe those managers could do in those cases, who are kind of caught between a rock and a hard place in a way?

In my experience, leaders are employees too. And I try to get mid-level leaders to be somewhat empathetic. When a senior leader maybe responds in a way that's not positive, sometimes that senior leader is just struggling with how to communicate the message. Or they're struggling with how to more effectively translate it. And many times that tension that comes when an issue is raised, oftentimes has very little to do with the person, it's like shooting the messenger type of thing.

I try to encourage leaders to not get overly reactive to when a leader, a senior leader is struggling with how to best articulate. And I've even encouraged people to say, "Hey, tell your boss, please don't shoot the messenger, but what coaching would you provide me as I try to communicate?" Or better, many times I encourage people to ask the question around, "What could they do more to help support the message?" And that gives the senior leader the opportunity to think through another way of communicating it, revealing a bit more of what they can say and what they can't say. Many times that will create the environment for them to do that. "Look, I really can't go into this yet because this needs to happen. This needs to happen."

The other option is to leverage your network and to... "I had this interaction with my boss. It wasn't really effective, what advice would you have? Because I don't feel like my question was answered. Or the question of my team."

The other thing that's often helpful in a situation like that, particularly if the leadership is open to it, is invite the leadership to come with you, and have direct conversations with the employees, so that you're not carrying that responsibility solely on your shoulders. Invite them to just speak with your team, have a skip level discussion without you in the room, and let them interact and exchange. Many times leaders will welcome that because it'll give them a sense for the pulse of the organization.

There are ways where you can help facilitate different types of communication. Sometimes it could simply be that your manager is struggling, and you go one level up, or you go to the side, and say, "Well these guys are peers, he might help... One of his peers, might help me have a better perspective on how to better communicate the particular goal that the organization is trying to achieve."

I think the key thing in dealing with the employee is not just a throw your hands up and go, "I don't know either. I'm with you." I think the leadership responsibility and obligation is to say, "Let me figure out a way to get more information for you. Let me figure out a way to get more insight or context behind what's going on in the organization."

That creates a trusting environment with you and your direct employee. It also creates a bit of trust between you and senior leadership because they see the alignment and the support. But also it puts the leader in the position where they're seeking to understand, and over time they'll get a lot better about understanding what leaders can share, when they can share it.

Many times leaders are encumbered by the timing of messages, and when employees pick up on things, or hear about things before things are finalized or fully developed, sometimes employees will then jump to the conclusion that, "Oh, I can't trust. Or there's an issue here." Many times they're just not ready. They're just not ready.



As a recap of this episode, Wendell talked about ways that managers can navigate issues of trust in the workplace. It's important for managers and leaders to be as transparent as possible, to provide as much context as they can.

I liked Wendell's insight that managers are often limited in what they can say, which some employees translate as, "Oh, they're not telling us everything." Well, yeah, you're rarely going to get the whole story. But it's important for managers to explain why leaders may or may not be able to provide all relevant information.

As a manager, you can help amplify and clarify the message of senior leaders, and then make the commitment to your team that you'll look into getting more information, if there's something you yourself don't know.

I think the most important insight Wendell offered was about positive intentions. Employees need to understand that just because something is unclear, doesn't mean their managers or leaders are withholding information for negative reasons. It is so easy to misunderstand the intentions of others, and when we don't have enough information, when we're in the dark, we often default to a negative mindset.

Transparency and openness help change that default mindset to be positive, built on a foundation of trusting leaders, even if you don't have all the information that went into a decision made by those leaders.

And that's it for this episode. Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I'll conduct an interview about diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

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