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Are you overdrawn on your trust account?

Leaders and employees establish a trust account, Candace Chellew writes, and must be cognizant of when they may be overdrawn.

5 min read


trust account

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I was 23 years old when I got my first radio talk show at an AM/FM combo station in northeast Georgia. It was a drive-time show (from 2 – 6 p.m.), which, next to the morning show, is plum real estate for a talk show host with a captive audience of commuters. I was shocked at the promotion from news reporter and anchor to host. From all appearances, it showed that the program manager had a lot of trust in me to do a good job. In reality, it was a win-win for him. If I succeeded, he looked like a genius. If I failed, he could fire me since he and I didn’t get along all that well.

Candace Chellew

I took the job and ran with it. My show was so successful that it garnered ratings within the Atlanta market with a small blip, but still a blip! It was a major accomplishment for a shy kid like me to become an interviewer, host and entertainer. It was a great job … until it wasn’t. 

I went away on vacation for a week, and my program manager asked if he could call me while I was away. I agreed, and a few days before I was scheduled to return, he called to inform me that a new host had been hired and my show was being canceled. I wasn’t fired, he assured me. I would return to the newsroom, but I’d have to train my replacement when I returned. 

Whatever small amount of trust had been built up between us over the past couple of years was immediately broken by his cowardly act of firing me from my talk show over the phone, thousands of miles away.

Do you have a trust account?

Trust is a key ingredient in the success of any leader, but as author and meditation teacher Light Watkins reminds us, it’s a two-way street. 

In one of his recent daily emails, he wrote: 

We often forget that every relationship has a trust account. Tensions arise, and arguments break out due to the balance of trust being overdrawn. At this point, deposits are required to prevent the relationship from defaulting into toxicity. Words of affirmation, quality time, and validating the other person’s experience are all deposits. Making frequent deposits should not be treated as a temporary fix but as an ongoing strategy for building and maintaining trust and safety. And if ever there is drama, that’s your opportunity to top off the account.

Every relationship, be it with your team, your colleagues, your family or your friends, has this trust account, and if we’re making withdrawals without subsequent deposits, eventually, we will default into that toxicity Watkins warns about. My program manager and I had already defaulted to that place before he gave me the talk show, so I suspected his “trust” was a ploy to get rid of me all along. When I succeeded, he had to be sneaky about my eventual removal. 

However, I wasn’t making any deposits in that trust account either. I had been interviewing for a news reporting job at a station in Atlanta and was on the verge of being hired when he broke his news. After hanging up, I immediately called the news director there, and by the end of the afternoon of my firing, I had a new job in hand. I came back from vacation and resigned. I did not train my replacement. 

The key here is that trust was broken long before all this transpired. My program manager never took the time to build that trust, and because I knew I wasn’t trusted, I certainly wasn’t going to make deposits into an already overdrawn account. In subsequent jobs, though, with better bosses and managers, I learned about those trust deposits and withdrawals and how to make them. It’s certainly easier when you feel your boss trusts you to do your job and isn’t constantly working to undermine you. 

Lead by opening a trust account

Leaders must be the first to open these trust accounts by being transparent about their expectations, communicating openly and honestly and consistently following through on their promises and commitments. Recognizing and appreciating excellent work and collaborating with their team on making improvements also add a lot to that trust account. We build trust when we treat our team members fairly and show that we care for their well-being, but my past boss’s actions showed how bad things can go when these areas are neglected. 

As employees, we can take many of the same steps to build trust by being transparent with what we expect and communicating that with candor. We make trust deposits every time we meet expectations and commitments, recognize our superiors for their accomplishments and work with them to improve the culture for everyone.

When we build up our trust accounts, it’s easier to deal with situations where we may make withdrawals, such as taking one another for granted, overlooking an achievement or improvement or feeling like we can’t honestly discuss some things with our team or our bosses.  As Watkins notes, using deposits as a temporary fix for such withdrawals won’t work because everyone will know it’s a dishonest gesture meant to placate another instead of truly investing in ongoing trust. 

As leaders then, we must see any withdrawals from that trust account as a reason to top off the account with sincere deposits of support, empowerment and appreciation. Otherwise, we may discover some of our best team members are already opening trust accounts elsewhere. 


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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