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Dan's Insights and Inspirations for Empowered Leadership

Why People Don't Trust Your Leadership (And What To Do About It)

So you sense that your team doesn't trust you? Maybe your team openly questions your instructions, maybe they don't execute the plan you've outlined, or maybe you feel like you can't say anything without offending someone. Regardless of how mistrust happens, it's not a fun feeling. Because trust is like oxygen for a team… when trust levels are low, everyone suffers. 

I love what Steven M. R. Covey said “In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.”

If you feel like the absence of trust on your team threatens your organization… you're not alone. In fact, Forbes reports that a solid majority of business leaders (55%) believe a lack of trust in the workplace constitutes a foundational threat to their company. 

So Why Don't People Trust You? 

That's a big question, and there are a range of possible reasons. It could be the team you're leading is filled with suspicious people. It could be the residual effects of the person who led before you. It could be poor communication. Or… it could be you. 

Since you're the only thing you can control…let’s focus on that. 

Leaders who struggle to inspire trust in their team, are likely dealing with a credibility gap. Meaning, there's a gap between what they preach and what they practice. In my book, Authentic Leadership, I explain how people crave authenticity. They want to know that their leaders are the real deal, that you won't pretend to be someone you're not, or promise what you can't deliver. The moment they sense that you're inauthentic… they begin to withhold trust.

At the root, there's one word that describes every leader with a credibility gap: insecure. 

When people lead out of insecurity, they spend a lot of energy posturing and pretending to have their act together, instead of actually leading the team to produce results.  Eventually, people tire of leaders who are all sizzle, but no steak… and they pull away. I experienced that reality my first year of college. 

You're a Fake

I was fortunate to be among the 7% of high school athletes to play sports at the collegiate level. I was on the Malone University basketball team, and when I got to campus my freshman year, I knew I was pretty good. And I wanted everyone to know it too. I once carried a basketball to English class, just in case my professor or anyone else in the room wondered if I was bound for basketball greatness. If they weren’t sure, the ball under my arm while I read Annie Dillard was a dead giveaway. Mind you, my unshakable self-confidence came before a single practice session. 

When the first practice came, I infuriated my teammates by demanding the ball, missing easy shots, and playing lousy defense. Eventually coach got the picture. I was much more splash than substance. And after a year of riding the pine and getting dunked on a lot, I began to get the picture too. 

At first, I blamed the coach. Then I blamed my teammates. Then I blamed a nagging injury. Finally, after weeks of denial, I blamed myself. There was a cavernous gap between how good I thought I was, and how good I actually was. 

One day after a workout, a caring (and blunt) teammate approached me. The upperclassman (presumably sick of my swagger) put his finger in my chest. He said firmly and quietly, “Dan, this team doesn't trust you. Coaches don't trust you, and neither do the players. Heck, the ball boy doesn't trust you. You're fake. 

But if you took the energy you spent trying to look like an all-star, and used it to work on being an all-star, you’d actually be an all-star.” 


My first thought was, “Who are you? What do you know?” 

In other words, my first reaction was complete and utter defense mode, to shirk back into my shell, protected, not exposed. 

I’m not sure how he saw it—maybe everyone saw it—but I vainly attempted to cover it up with excuses and pretense. I pushed his finger off my chest and walked away without saying a word. I was furious. Later that night, as my head hit the pillow, I realized he wasn’t wrong. And I needed to hear it. 

Step #1: Stop Pretending

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep up illusions. It’s exhausting to maintain the gap between who you are and who you’d like people to think you are. Dave Ramsey agrees. In his book “The Total Money Makeover” Ramsey challenged readers to reconsider to stop living to impress others. He famously said, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

Many leaders are squarely in that boat. They spend far more time, money, and energy looking like they have it together than actually having it together. They clothe the credibility gap instead of closing the gap. 

So, before you blame others for the lack of trust on your team, ask yourself some questions: Where are you pretending? What are you not owning? Where have you broken promises to your team? If you find the answer, you might also find the source of your trust issues.