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Earning the Trust of Your Team

Name me two words that instill greater fear and panic in employees than these: trust fall. If you’re anything like me, and I’m guessing you are, you probably had a terrible experience involving a trust fall. Whether in a middle school gym class or at a corporate retreat, most of us experienced trust falls as a team-building exercise. But if you bring that topic up at a party or in a meeting, almost everyone has a horror story involving a trust fall in which they trusted and, well, fell. Trust falls rarely end well, and you’re lucky if you manage to escape with a bruised ego (and possibly a bruised tailbone).

So, if they rarely work, then why are trust falls still showing up on the agenda at team-building conferences? Because trust is important in the workplace, and leaders know this. Trust plays a major factor in why people choose to stay at a job versus leaving to pursue other opportunities. Time and again, trust comes up in exit interviews, as people articulate why they felt they had to leave. Managers hear this buzzword over and over but there’s no clear path for earning the trust of your team and your coworkers.

When I work with leaders, I like to tell them that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. People can trust and believe in an employer but still choose to leave because they do not trust or believe in their boss. So, it’s worth your time and energy to figure out how to gain the trust of your team. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but a lot of it comes down to social awareness and emotional intelligence.

Wired for Failure

Trust is a tricky thing in the workplace. Earning and keeping trust involves a thousand big and small things that you do every day. It has a great deal to do with knowing yourself and consciously making the choice to step outside of yourself. Social awareness is understanding the impact that you have on those around you and making the choice to turn off your own thoughts and tune into the thoughts of those around you. As a leader, this means being intentional about affirming and lifting up others on your team, seeing and recognizing their contributions and expertise.

This doesn’t come naturally to any of us, honestly. We are wired with a desire to be seen for who we are, and we are constantly trying to defend that, without even realizing it. But social awareness is like a muscle. The more you practice, the stronger the muscle gets. The more you work on knowing your strengths and weaknesses, the more equipped you are to make different choices. We’ve all had the experience of working with someone who had very little social awareness and was utterly unaware of how they affected those around them. It can be hard to change when you lack awareness, but as you practice this skill, you can push push through and be better.

Why Employees Leave

So, what does emotional intelligence have to do with trust? Well, if you have faithfully developed your emotional intelligence and social awareness, you will be able to tune into those around you and figure out what they need to trust you. If you’re not able to tune in, you may try to earn trust with things like salary, perks, or status. These things matter but they aren’t the reasons that people stay in challenging jobs. Rather, employee retention is tied to the intangible things like acknowledgement, feelings of belonging, and relationships.

And when these things are lacking, they leave. Even with competitive salaries and great benefits, you may still be making choices that erode their trust in you every day. When I am working with clients and discussing past jobs, people rarely say they left their previous role because of money or benefits. I’m not saying these things don’t matter; they do. But they don’t matter as much as we might think. Instead, I hear over and over that people leave because they didn’t feel seen or heard, because they felt they didn’t belong, or they couldn’t trust their leaders. These small things can be as simple as an errant comment or failing to recognize someone’s contribution to a project. Promising communication and then failing to be transparent or upfront. Going into a conversation with all of the answers and composing your response in your head instead of being fully present and listening to the other person. These things may not feel big at the time, but they slowly chip away at the trust you are trying to build. And once the erosion process has started, the clock is ticking down to the moment that employee gives notice.

Flexing your EQ

But fear not, this is all fixable! Emotional intelligence and social awareness are skills that can be practiced and mastered. As you begin to retrain your own ego and find ways to engage with your team more positively, new bonds will be formed. Your team doesn’t need a perfect leader who never makes a mistake or has a bad day—they need a leader they can trust, even on bad days. If your EQ is strong and you have put in the work to be more socially aware, you can acknowledge the bad day and own up to the negative way you impacted others. If the foundation you have built with your team is strong, open communication is enough to repair the damage from a bad day or a poorly handled situation. But if the foundation is weak and the trust has been eroded, then one bad day could push your employee past their tipping point and out of your organization.

The bottom line is that trust is not built or broken in a day. It is the culmination of many small actions and choices every day that either affirm those around you or wear them down. Emotional intelligence and social awareness are game changers in building an environment of trust. My workshop for leaders is a great place to start working your EQ muscles and practicing socially aware behaviors. Learn more and sign up here

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