(Re)Building Trust as a New Leader

I was recently discussing with one of my coaching clients* the importance trust plays in leadership, especially when you take over after trust was lost by a predecessor. My client shared with me a time he learned that lesson very well. He had taken over as a director for a large function at his organization and was holding listening sessions with the front line workers. These sessions were part of getting to know his new organization as well as letting them get to know him.

What he didn’t expect was the story one of the groups told him about a manager in his organization who was terrible to work for. My client was taken off guard a little, so he started asking questions about this manager and writing down a lot of notes. The employees shared stories about this manager and how he treated people that shocked my client. He thought to himself, “I need to follow up with my leadership team and find out what is going on with this manager. And, I need to find out why no one has brought this up yet.” To get some more context, my client said to the employees, “Thank your for sharing that information. I will definitely follow up on what you have shared. Just so I have the details right, can you let me know about when some of these incidents happened?”

What the employees said next knocked my client over: “About 10 years ago.” In fact, the manager they had been describing didn’t even work at the company any more. He was confused because the way the employees had been describing the situation, it sounded like it all happened within the last few months. He wondered, “How is it that they are this upset still after 10 years?”

When you are taking over for a boss who has lost trust (even if it is several bosses ago), it is important for leaders to recognize that employees not only have to learn to trust the individual leader, they have to learn to trust management in general. Employees can have long memories, as my client learned, and a leader may have to first start building back the trust that was lost before she or he showed up.

This blog post from Harvard Business Review has some good tips on how to start rebuilding trust after it was lost by a prior leader. The author notes that it is important for the new leader to acknowledge the mistakes the prior leader made that caused trust to be lost without dwelling on the mistakes. Instead, use that acknowledgement as a pivot point to look forward. A new leader should “explicitly ask individuals or groups within the company how can I help you now? What do you most want and need going forward? What do you hope I will do? What do you hope I won’t do?”

If building trust with a new group takes time, rebuilding trust takes longer. If, as a leader, you find that you are walking into a situation of distrust, you will first need to approach the situation with inquisitiveness and empathy instead of defensiveness. You may feel defensive hearing criticism, even if it is not about you. If you respond defensively and try to justify the prior leader’s actions, you will create additional distance and make trust harder to rebuild. Instead, invest time in listening to people, getting feedback, and demonstrating empathy. That approach helps them turn the page on the past and open to a new chapter of your leadership.

* NOTE: My client gave me permission to share this story and has read this post. No identifying information is included in this post to maintain confidentiality.