3 little words

4 min read


What are the most important three words for any relationship between a manager and employee?

No, it’s not “I love you.” Now that would be inappropriate, although not everyone would agree with that opinion. Love their jobs, yes. Love their managers or employees? Eew!

No, the most important three little words are: “I trust you.”

Trust is the foundation that a positive manager-employee relationship is built on. The absence of trust leads to micromanagement, fear, risk-aversion, backstabbing, destructive rumors, a lack of innovation, mistakes, and a lack of engagement.

What does trust look like? It’s all in the eye of the beholder, but here’s a starter list from both the manager’s and employee’s perspective:

When an employee says “I trust you” to their manager, it means:

  1. When I share good news and accomplishments with you, you will let your boss and others know.
  2. You won’t claim credit for my accomplishments.
  3. When I admit a weakness, you will work with me to improve myself, not hold it against me on my performance review.
  4. I can come to you when I make a mistake. You’ll treat it as a learning opportunity, but also hold me accountable when needed.
  5. You’ll look me in the eye and give me honest, fair, direct feedback when I need it. You won’t sugarcoat it. I’ll know where I stand with you and won’t be blindsided during my performance review.
  6. You won’t ignore performance issues – my own, as well as the rest of my co-workers. If I see a co-worker slacking off, I’ll assume you are dealing with it. If I have to bring it to your attention, I know you’ll look into it and deal with it fairly.
  7. You won’t “shoot the messenger” if I bring a problem to your attention.
  8. You’ll do what you say you’re going to do. I won’t have to remind you more than once.
  9. You’ll look out for my best interests. Yes, I know you have a business to run and have to make tough decisions, but you will do whatever you can to make sure I’m treated fairly and with respect.
  10. You’ll tell the truth and not hold back critical information.
  11. I can discuss my career aspirations with you and you won’t hold it against me.

When a manager says “I trust you” to their employee, it means:

  1. When I ask you to do something, I know you’ll do it. I won’t have to follow-up, inspect, ask again, etc…
  2. You’ll tell me when you think I’m wrong or about to make a stupid mistake.
  3. You won’t throw me under the bus in front of my boss, or behind my back.
  4. If you have a problem with me, you’ll come to me first to discuss it.
  5. When I ask you to do something and you say you can’t, I’ll know you have good reasons.
  6. When we discuss your career aspirations, you’ll be open and honest with me so that I can support you. I shouldn’t be blindsided when you give me your notice.
  7. You won’t cover up mistakes. If you screw up, you’ll admit it, take ownership, and focus on solving the problem.
  8. You’ll give me a heads up regarding any urgent issues or problems so that I’m appropriately informed and not surprised when I hear about it from others.
  9. If your workload slows down, you’ll let me know, or offer to help your teammates with theirs.
  10. When I ask you how long something will take, you’ll give me a realistic and honest estimate. No padding.
  11. When you complement me, I’ll know it’s sincere. No sucking up.

What would you add to the list? What does “I trust you” mean to you?

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire and runs the Management & Leadership channel of About.com. He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better leader and communicator.