The definition of trust is an "assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something". When a manager is placed in charge of a new team, they typically have to build that foundation of trust from scratch by demonstrating those key attributes.
Joe Bonfante, ACMA, CGMA, a finance business partner based in London with experience running effective team coaching initiatives, has developed his trust-building strategy by observing the missteps and shining moments of past managers. Years ago, he had a new manager who came in on his first day and immediately started establishing his dominance by outlining all the changes he was going to make around the office, whether people liked it or not.
"Before we even got going the trust was destroyed, and he didn't last that long because trying to come in as an autocratic manager didn't work," he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bonfante worked for a different manager who created a trusting work environment by making sure everyone on the team felt safe and supported. He remembers one day in particular when another area manager charged into the office and demanded to shout at someone on the team for a mistake they made.
"As cool as you like, my manager said, 'If you want to, you can shout at me', and his calm response stopped the guy in his tracks," Bonfante said. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, this guy has got our backs, that's what a true leader does', and that's a philosophy that I've lived with ever since."
If you've recently been placed in charge of a new team, consider following these five tips to create a trusting work environment that allows everyone to perform at their best.
Make a good first impression. When managers meet their teams for the first time, it's an opportunity to set the tone for those relationships going forward.
Ruchi Sinha, Ph.D., senior lecturer in the School of Management at University of South Australia, said managers should make a point of demonstrating competence, organisation, and vulnerability. Do your homework about the company and each team member and try to learn all of their names in advance. When you introduce yourself, make sure you talk about who you are as a person, indicate what you value, and establish your credentials without coming across as arrogant.
Bonfante recommends observing the team for a few days and holding off on instituting any changes until you have met one-on-one with each team member.
Dare to trust first. It can be difficult to trust a new team when you don't know much about them or how they work, but Sinha argued managers need to take a certain amount of risk in delegating to their teams in order to receive trust in return.
"It's always difficult as a new manager to delegate work, because you're not 100% sure of their competence and track record, but we know that early act of trusting can actually encourage others to live up to the expectation," she said. "Relying on their word can show that you're willing to make yourself a little more vulnerable than you need to, which can actually trigger trust."
Just be aware that vulnerability can also lead to betrayal, a risk Sinha believes managers should be willing to take.
Be clear and consistent. One of the first things managers should do when they meet with their new team is outline their expectations and the framework for how they want the team to operate, according to Andrew de Bray, managing director at Factum Limited, a consulting company based in London.
"If somebody knows what they can and can't be doing, that immediately makes them more comfortable," he said.
Once you have clearly outlined what your team can expect from you and what you expect from them, you can help maintain that trust by being consistent and following through on promises. And when you do inevitably slip up, be sure to offer a genuine apology and explain how you plan to avoid making the same mistake in the future.
"How you explain and react to your mistakes decides whether the trust will be maintained or broken," Sinha said. "If you have not lived up to your promise or acted in ways that violate their expectations, it is essential to acknowledge your mistake and say sorry."
Make your team feel safe. Trust can't exist unless employees feel psychologically safe enough to voice concerns or admit to mistakes. When Bonfante is placed in charge of a new team, one of the first things he does is make sure everyone feels they can admit to mistakes and challenge his ideas without jeopardising their jobs.
"I will actually tell them, 'You're safe here — don't worry about making mistakes,'" he said. "My job as a leader is to make my team feel safe and avoid a culture of blame."
He added that if things go wrong or he receives pressure from his superiors, he will do everything he can to protect them or take the hit himself.
"I always make sure as a leader that the pressure stops with me, because if you start passing that pressure on to your team, trust can be broken very quickly," he said. "It's all about how you react when things are going wrong; that's the true value of a leader."
Once managers have established a base level of trust with their teams, de Bray recommends conducting regular failure analyses as a way to normalise mistakes and effectively learn from them.
"If you look at either big global organisations or military, they place a lot of emphasis on what went wrong as well as what went right," he said. "If you only look at what went well, that's only half the story. You need to know what could have gone better, who did what, and you need them to speak up without thinking there's going to be some form of retribution."
Avoid gossip and favouritism. Playing favourites and indulging in office gossip can be detrimental to trust. Sinha urges managers to avoid indulging in anything that resembles gossip because when employees hear that, they might assume you're talking about them when they leave the room.
"Sometimes, people do not realise that they are gossiping — they actually think they are just casually chatting socially, and it is a form of connection to discuss the personal life of another member," Sinha said. "But be aware, if you do that, others may not trust you with their personal matters and will lose trust in your promises of keeping things private or confidential."
Another common mistake leaders make is playing favourites. If team members get the impression they're being treated unfairly, they are less likely to trust that their manager is on their side.
"When managers spend time providing more support to a chosen few while ignoring others, they will be seen as unfair and unjust," Sinha said. "This is another way to destroy trust in the leader and, more importantly, trust between the in-group and out-group members in the same team."
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.