Many leaders have acquired their skills in environments where team members could be physically seen. Even though modern leadership trains managers to empower and trust employees, this in many cases has not been previously tested as most leaders have had the luxury of team members physically accessible for the duration of the work day.

Fast forward to a world of COVID-19 where metres are replaced by postcodes and leaders and employees have been forced to quickly transition to a new way of work. For some employees, the remote environment has been a welcome change, however not everyone has the luxury of an ideal home working environment. Many are juggling home schooling; difficult family dynamics and cramped kitchen tables. This has exposed leadership vulnerabilities and some leaders are finding themselves in a position where a lack of trust in the employee has crept in.

The implications of a lack of trust

A lack of trust in any sort of relationship is not ideal, but when it directly impacts an employee’s wellbeing, a leader’s effectiveness and the businesses’ productivity, it is an issue that needs urgent attention. When employees and leaders share a workspace, the lack of trust often translates to ‘hovering’. This is mainly due to leaders not feeling confident that the work is getting done by the right timeframe or at the right level, so the hovering and extra questions begins.

Unfortunately, hovering is the first step towards micromanagement as leaders feel like they don’t have control and a lack of trust sets in. It may be an unwelcome visitor in the employment relationship but left unchecked it will become the beginning of serious issues.

The following are just some of the issues that a lack of trust at work brings:

It diminishes innovation and creativity

Employees that do not feel trusted are much less likely to focus on the intrapreneurial spirit that brings much needed innovation and creativity to the business. In a time where employers are needing to pivot and change their offering, it has never been more important to have a workforce that think outside of the box and that have the latitude and empowerment to get the job done differently.

It kills productivity and performance

When there is an absence of trust, micromanagement creeps in. The problem with this is that over monitoring of tasks stops the workflow and generates disengagement. The more time that leaders spend asking extra questions, checking tasks and monitoring output – the less time that workers have to get on with the job. Perhaps more concerningly, when employees cotton on to the fact that their leader has lost trust they drop their desire to do their best or display discretionary effort.

Employees lose confidence and don’t feel accountable

The lack of trust in employees creates a scenario whereby employees start to lose confidence in even lower level tasks. They are less likely to put their hand up for projects or additional tasks for fear of not succeeding. A lack of confidence also leads to diminished accountability as employees will back away from tasks and the responsibility associated knowing that their manager will be overseeing each step.

A lack of belief

When self-belief starts to fade, a drop in productivity and performance is close behind. It may start quite innocently with extra ‘check ins’ and requests for daily updates, but the employee starts to feel that maybe there is a reason for the micromanagement. It is common at this point for self-doubt to creep in and employees to questions whether they have the right skills and abilities to perform the job.

Five Ways for leaders to re build trust

1. Be vulnerable to acknowledge the situation

The phrase ‘we are all in this together’ gets thrown around, but the truth is we really are. Leaders are not immune from the stress and worries of a global health pandemic. Many leaders are in unchartered territory and it is ok to share that with team members. Simply saying, “Sam, I apologise if you feel that I am checking in too much. Leading remotely is new to me and my intention is purely to make sure you feel supported”. Honestly and vulnerability are key ingredients to building trust and respect.

2.Be clear on expectations

Working remotely is still working and it is totally fine to have reasonable expectations for output. It is, however, unfair to have secret measurement tools that the employee does not know even exists. Be clear and upfront about deliverables and share an open discussion about what hurdles may be in the way of that success.

3. Be honest with yourself

It is important to reflect on where the trust issues are coming from. Some leaders love control and it would not matter how competent the employee was whilst others just don’t like the fact that they can no longer see their team members. As hard as it is, when there is a lack of trust it is important to reflect on whether the employee has actually done something to break it or if they are just managed like they have.

4. Give employees the space to make mistakes

Leaders that don’t trust employees will interfere when they should be stepping back and empowering workers to use their skills and experiences to get the job done. If the employee knows that they can approach the leader for support and they have the tools to be successful, then it is ok to let them have the valuable learning experience of making a mistake. A leader that constantly checks up on their team member should also be held accountable for mistakes because they were not given the opportunity to succeed.

5. Check in – don’t check up

Leaders need to ask themselves why they are touching base with their employees. What is the intent and desired outcome? ‘Checking in’ with employees has a different intent to ‘checking up’. One builds the relationship and the other breaks it. Employees have enough balls in the air and they don’t need to feel like their leader doesn’t trust them. One way to check in is simply to say, “Sam, I’m just touching base to see if there are any hurdles that I can help remove for you”.

Trust builds motivation, well being and productivity

When trust is broken – no one wins. It is somewhat expected in uncertain times that leaders will want to tighten their grip, however in doing so they are generating many negative effects of close monitoring. Conversely, autonomy and empowerment send a message to employees that they are valued and trusted which strongly contribute to engagement and performance. Ultimately, trust is a precious commodity that when nurtured pays dividends.

Further information

For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor
Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 20 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.