If You Can't Trust Your Boss, You're Not Alone

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Corporate leaders as a group have largely failed to earn the trust of their employees, and that includes IT managers, who may be particularly lacking in some of the qualities that define a trusted leader.


That's the assessment of John Hamm, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist, leadership advisor and author of the book, "Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership." I spoke with Hamm earlier this week and he made it clear that he sees among employees in corporate America a widespread lack of trust of those in authority in their companies, and that the fault lies squarely with the leaders:

Company leaders have done some silly and irresponsible things over time, as a large group of people. When people in positions of authority or power break a promise or don't keep their word in an area that's meaningful to us, we hold them accountable for things they do and say that affect us. What leaders don't realize is that while everyone's word matters, theirs matters just a little bit more, because they have the added obligation of being in a position of authority over some aspect of the quality of our lives.

What lies at the heart of this failure to earn employee trust isn't maliciousness, Hamm said. It's obliviousness:

Their self-awareness around this is way too low. Leaders don't really want to accept or acknowledge how much their words matter. They sort of want to live in the illusion that, "Oh, I'm just the same as everybody else-I can tell a little white lie here or a fib there." The truth is, I think most of them either don't want to acknowledge or don't really realize how important it is for them to keep their word. I think it can be reckless, it can be oblivious, it can be negligent, but I don't think it's usually with intent. I think when leaders screw this up, they do it as a matter of sloppiness, lack of awareness, lack of regard. There's sort of casualness with it, and they don't realize those consequences.

Hamm expressed the view that it would be a gross stereotype of the technology community to say that the community, while very tech savvy, isn't as savvy when it comes to people skills. But leadership skills may be a different story:

It's probably more prevalent in the tech community that we find people in positions of authority who have certainly paid their dues and earned their stripes technically, but maybe not so much with regard to leadership practices and principles. They may tend to manage the people in an IT department the way they manage the stuff in an IT department, and that just doesn't work. But I don't think there's a set of errors that are germane or specific to the IT community. [That said,] communication in the IT world tends to happen a lot by email or text or some sort of electronic means. One of the things that tech people need to realize is that people still need to be talked to. There's still very much a demand for that personal connection, that getting together, that conversation we need to have with each other. In a dispersed world where so many things are happening on our devices, you need that occasional stop-by to talk to somebody or to have a meeting with a group of people. I talked to someone the other night who said he's never met his boss. He's been working there eight months in a remote IT support job, and he's never met his boss. I suppose they've had a phone call or two, but that's crazy to me. I understand that getting people together is expensive, and that it's hard to spend the time. But occasionally we still have to value that human connection, and I think even tech people value that human connection.

In his book, meanwhile, Hamm has outlined some steps leaders can take to build trust in their companies. Those steps are briefly encapsulated here:


  • Realize that being trustworthy doesn't mean you have to be a Boy Scout. You don't even have to be a warm or kind person. On the contrary, history teaches us that some of the most trustworthy people can be harsh, tough or socially awkward - but their promises must be inviolate and their decisions fair.
  • Look for chances to reveal some vulnerability. We trust people we believe are real and also human (imperfect and flawed) - just like us. And that usually means allowing others to get a glimpse of our personal vulnerability - some authentic (not fabricated) weakness or fear or raw emotion that allows others to see us as like them, and therefore relate to us at the human level.
  • No matter how tempted you are, don't bullsh*t your employees. Tell the truth, match your actions with your words and match those words with the truth we all see in the world: no spin, no BS, no fancy justifications or revisionist history - just tell the truth.
  • Never, ever make the "adulterer's guarantee." This happens when you say to an employee, in effect, "I just lied to [someone else], but you can trust me because I'd never lie to you." When employees see you committing any act of dishonesty or two-facedness, they'll assume that you'll do the same to them. They'll start thinking back through all of their conversations with you, wondering what was real and what was disingenuous.
  • Don't punish "good failures." This is one of the stupidest things an organization can do - yet it happens all the time. A "good failure" is a term used in Silicon Valley to describe a new business startup or mature company initiative that, by most measures, is well-planned, well-run and well-organized - yet for reasons beyond its control (an unexpected competitive product, a change in the market or economy) it fails. In other words, "good failures" occur when you play well, but still lose. When they're punished, you instill a fear of risk-taking in your employees, and with that you stifle creativity and innovation.
  • Don't squelch the flow of "bad" news. Do you (or others under you) shoot the messenger when she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger's priority is not bringing you the information you need: It's protecting her own hide. That's why in most organizations good news zooms to the top of the organization, while bad news - data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking, or feedback that challenges or defeats your strategy - flows uphill like molasses in January.
  • Constantly tap into your "fairness conscience." Precise agreements about what is fair are hard to negotiate, because each of us has our own sense of fairness. But at the level of general principle, there is seldom any confusion about what fair looks like. Just ask yourself: Would most people see this as fair or unfair? You'll know the answer (indeed, as a leader, you're paid to know it).
  • Don't take shortcuts. Every organization wants to succeed. That's why, inevitably, there is a constant pressure to let the end justify the means. This pressure becomes especially acute when either victory or failure is in immediate sight. That's when the usual ethical and moral constraints are sometimes abandoned - always for good reasons, and always "just this once" - in the name of expediency.
  • Separate the bad apples from the apples who just need a little direction. The cost of untruths to an organization can be huge in terms of time, money, trust and reputation. As a leader, you have to recognize that you are not going to be able to "fix" a thief, a pathological liar or a professional con artist - all of these must go, immediately.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 5, 2011 11:54 AM mataj mataj  says:

Corporate leaders as a group have largely failed to earn the trust of their employees,

Sure, but is this a problem? Corporations have been doing fine without their employee trust for decades.

In most cases, bullying is cheaper, yet perfectly suitable substitute for trust building. This is especially true nowadays when unemployment is high, and poised to remain high for the foreseeable future. Why bother to build trust, when you can always fire the incredulous employees, and bully the rest into submission?

They'll start thinking back through all of their conversations with you, wondering what was real and what was disingenuous.

So what. As long as they do what they are told, who cares what they believe and what they wander.

In the rare occasions, where believing is important, traditional disinformation techniques usually help. A fake telephone conversation staged to be overheard by underlings still works wonders. If there is no personal contact, which is pretty common in the IT, more IT-ish methods of delivering your disinformation to your personell must be employed. Mix the stuff your serfs are supposed to believe with some irritating, yet harmless chickenfeed, and "leak" the whole thing to them through "misdirected" email, or fake security lapse. Possibilities are endless. In any case- as long as you are able to maintain earnest, authoritative affectation, you can perpetuate any disinformation.

May 8, 2011 10:45 AM Drunken Economist Drunken Economist  says:

Now that he's not shilling for @NASSCOM, does anyone even COME to this site anymore?


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