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Trust is the ultimate tool to unleash your team’s potential

Management can’t operate from negative assumptions, so trust your team.

6 min read




Trust is the keystone to managing a team. Just ask Jack who, after 17 years working job sites for a respected construction company, moved into a management role.

Once in his new position, Jack decided to replace the deadbolt on the tool room, which had been broken for years. While there were no immediate or evident concerns about the change from his team, Jack’s assistant manager asked why he felt a locked door was needed now. After all, the tool room had been consistently unlocked to no ill effect for years. The assistant manager suggested the locked door made it seem like Jack didn’t trust his team.

As Warren Buffett put it, “Trust is like the air we breathe. When it is present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.” So regardless of his team’s response, we’d be remiss in believing employees hadn’t noticed Jack’s first act as a leader involved locking all supplies away from them. This inadvertently tarnished trust — even if it was never Jack’s intention.

Distrust in the workplace isn’t always as literal as a deadbolt. Historically, training for new leaders has centered around maintaining company rules. But focusing on making a team adhere to a set of rules does anything but show trust in your employees; it shows you don’t believe their behavior will benefit the company and their colleagues.

A team led with trust performs well: Tool rooms (or their equivalent) are unlocked, and no one needs a key. Risking a small theft isn’t as dangerous as risking the alienation of an entire team by showing you don’t trust your employees.

No matter your leadership experience, you can change your behavior to create a trusting environment, empower your team, and increase productivity. Here’s how to get started:

1. Abandon micromanagement

“Abandon” isn’t always a scary word; it also infers some freedom, particularly if abandoning a bad habit.

The ability to trust is based on positive assumptions — assumptions that include believing people want to achieve, have integrity, and work hard toward goals they’re committed to. I lead a remote team of professionals and, in addition to client services, they’re often working on major projects. While it’s important to track progress, our team members would feel less valued if frequent and continuous checks existed.

We use a “plan of work” for each new project. The plan of work defines the desired results from the project’s completion. It’s up to the team member or members involved to determine major steps and supporting actions along with milestone dates. As a manager, I might provide additional insight, but the completion of the project is the team member’s responsibility. Weekly one-on-one meetings provide the opportunity for updates as one of the agenda’s many touchpoints.

These plans of work let our leaders serve as coaches rather than task masters. They allow our team members freedom to reach new heights while still keeping managers involved in the day-to-day workflow.

2. Admit your mistakes

Leaders aren’t always right. All humans make mistakes, and leaders are, in fact, human. The problem comes when leaders aren’t able to admit that they are wrong. Admitting when you have made a mistake isn’t always easy, but honesty brings many benefits: It shows self-awareness, illustrates trust in your team, and has the potential to strengthen relationships across your organization.

It’s impossible to assume a leader can push ideas outside the status quo without making a few mistakes. Because our team promotes high levels of involvement, trust, and open communication, there are inevitably times when we don’t practice what we preach.

Case in point: Our company decided to hire a new member. In my haste to get the job profile published, I neglected to alert our team members, and they ended up reading about it and being questioned by others without knowing it had been released.

Because we believe in open, adult-to-adult communication, several team members immediately brought this to my attention. It’s so much easier to be apologetic for the lapse than to find some justification for it.

Your honesty will increase engagement and loyalty because your team can relate to your vulnerability. It also sets the tone for the rest of your team to follow suit. I encourage leaders to set examples. Demonstrating that it is OK to admit an error — even in a high-performance workplace — creates an atmosphere where team members are willing to take a risk and share information.

3. Be transparent with your team

Too often, the standard for sharing information is on a need-to-know basis. But not disclosing information stems from mistrust in your team. When people seek information about new developments in the company, it shows they’re engaged and interested.

To keep employees in the know, add a “through the grapevine” agenda item to meetings — these provide an informal way for you to confirm or debunk any company information employees have heard from indirect sources. This was a great source of entertainment as well as an informative process when I worked with a team in a larger company.

The same goes for all types of company financials: Don’t shroud your compensation policy in secrecy. It makes it look like there’s something to hide, whether it’s internal pay inequity or below-market salaries. One recent Journal of Business and Psychology study revealed that a lack of salary transparency puts employee morale and performance in jeopardy, whereas being open about pay boosts collaboration and fosters employee development interest.

The bottom line: Management can’t operate from negative assumptions. Even if your leadership training was steeped in rule-focused tradition, empower your team members to be their most productive by leading from positive assumptions of character and trusting them.


Sue Bingham, founder and principal of HPWP Group, has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 30 years. Bingham also wrote Creating the High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment.”

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