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Dealing with Untrustworthy People

Many of our Team Trek clients have been exposed to our Engagement model. Whether or not you use it, most of us know from experience that whatever we do – selecting, developing, coaching, managing, or leading others – we want to start with trustworthy people. But we’re often asked, what if I inherited people on my team who are not trustworthy? What if I trusted someone in the past, but they broke my trust, and I no longer trust them?

extend trust to build trust

Look in the mirror. If our goal is to turn untrustworthy people into trustworthy people, our first step is to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Am I a trustworthy person? Do I extend trust to others?” This is important because leadership starts with self-awareness and is driven by three principles called the Law of the Harvest:

  • We reap what we sow.

  • We reap later than we sow.

  • We reap more than we sow.

The Law of the Harvest means we must first give to others what we most want to receive for ourselves. Would you trust someone who didn’t trust you? Not many of us would. So in order to have trustworthy, engaged people on our team, we have to go first and sow seeds of trust with them. If we want to be trusted, we have to extend trust to others. Understand it may take time before people start to trust us in return.

The Consequences of Low Trust

When we believe people are untrustworthy, our first instinct is to play it safe and minimize our personal risk. We start to question their integrity, intent, capabilities, or results. Poor communication produces mistrust, and we don’t communicate effectively with people we don't trust. We delegate less work, micro-manage more, and communicate in an unclear, fuzzy manner. We resort to blaming, making excuses, creating endless emails, and other risk reducing behaviors. These common CYA behaviors can cause individuals and even the entire work-group to disengage and be less productive.

Extend Trust to Build Trust

Take a risk with untrustworthy people. If you make a commitment to set clear expectations, agree on common goals, and make non-fuzzy agreements in all your relationships, not just with people you trust, you are taking key first steps to rebuilding lost trust. In addition, encourage people to take 100% Responsibility every day in every way. Take time to coach people to learn and grow from their mistakes and failures. Don’t be so influenced by what happened in the past to damage trust that you’re not willing to give others the chance to succeed in the future. This advice applies to both your personal and professional relationships. Find the courage to evaluate the level of trust in all your relationships…and then, if necessary, take first steps to reestablish lost trust.

  • Coach others to be trustworthy. Your challenge is to coach others to take the following actions:

  • Extend trust to others – Remember the Law of the Harvest and you reap what you sow.

  • Take 100% Responsibility for their actions and reactions – Stop blaming other people or their circumstances for their problems.

  • Listen with Empathy – Listen first to understand, then to be understood.

  • Talk straight – Establish a safe environment and tell the truth respectfully.

  • Follow through – Do what they say they will do, when they say they will do it.

  • Build mutually beneficial relationships – Show that they care and have a win-win attitude.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Understand there are no guarantees. The reality is despite our best efforts, some people will disappoint us and we’re unable to rebuild trust. When this happens, we need the courage to remove untrustworthy people from our team. It may be a painful experience, but it’s worth it in the end.

You may also be interest in Ten Ways to Build Trust with Your Team.


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Team Trek is a world-class provider of culture transformation solutions, leadership development, and team building.


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