Three Things You Need Before You Trust Your People

Trust is based on commitments made and commitments honored.

A cropped shot of a businessman sharing an idea with colleagues at a meeting

When my client – let’s call him John – hired a new president to run his company he expected his stress level to go down. He thought he’d be free to focus on strategic issues and long-range planning. He was wrong.

Within a few months, the president – I’ll call him Paul – started holding meetings without including John. Paul unraveled John’s decision to move their customer service center to a new location. He invested in new products without considering the complexity and the impact on the rest of the business. He couldn’t provide data or detail to support his decisions. The rest of the executive team worked long hours to prepare for key meetings; Paul left at 5:00. This new guy didn’t reduce John’s stress – he was the source of it.

When John confronted Paul with these issues, Paul told him to “Get out of the detail,” and, “Trust me.” Paul understood correctly that John did not trust him. And, following this conversation, John trusted him even less.

How much do you trust the people who report to you? Does trusting them mean not getting into the details of their work? How do you balance trust and effective management?

Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores write in their book Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life  that “…the key to trust is action, and, in particular, commitment: commitments made and commitments honored.” So how do you create a pattern of honored commitments with your team?


Before you trust, ask for these commitments.

There are three commitments that create trust, and one of them is not to demonstrate psychic powers. People can’t deliver on something that’s stored securely in your head. You must articulate the commitments you want. Tell your direct reports that is up to them to:

1. Manage expectations. You expect a certain level of performance from the people who report to you. However, it is their responsibility to manage your expectations. They should tell you what to expect regarding their results, their timing, and their teams. They should keep you up to speed on the fundamentals of their work: what, where, when, how, why, how often, and to what extent.


2. Keep promises. Executive coach Chalmers Brothers describes conversations as a series of promises that are essential to building trust. If you tell me you will meet me for coffee today at 3:00 and don’t show, that moment will inform what I think of you. A person’s word is a promise — a reflection of stewardship and character. You must be able to count on your people to do what they say.


3. Eliminate surprises. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for surprises. The minute somebody on your team knows they are taking a new strategy, they’ll miss a deadline, that there’s problem with quality, someone is quitting…they have an obligation to inform you. You cannot manage without crucial information. You must never be caught off-guard by the very people who should help you be an effective leader.


When they fail, have this conversation.

Nobody’s perfect. Inevitably, even your most reliable team member will do something that challenges your trust. Where do you go from there? That depends on what happened.

Solomon and Flores tell us, “Breaches of trust do not mark the end of trust but are part of the process of trusting. (There are many kinds of breaches, from mistakes to betrayal and treachery. It is important not to confuse them or assume that all breaches are betrayals.)” How will you know which one it is? You have to talk it out.

A productive conversation requires preparation. Steve Giondomenica, CEO of technology strategy firm CMI, recommends you get a pen and paper. Here’s his process:

Before the meeting:

  • Identify the headline. Distill the problem into one sentence. Don’t worry about others reading it – write down the essential issue. For example, John’s headline might have been, “I am out of the loop” or “You and I are making conflicting decisions.” This exercise forces you to be direct. It will create clarity and prevent misunderstandings.
  • Define the ideal outcome. What do you hope will happen as a result of this conversation? John’s ideal outcome might be “We discuss each major decision before you make it.” You are applying the Covey principle: “Begin with the end in mind.”
  • List examples and the impact they had. Most of us know we should be prepared with examples, but Steve emphasizes the impact. Both elements — the example and the impact — are essential so that the person you speak to understands why the issue matters. For example, John’s decision not to move the call center cost the company money and made people wonder who was in charge.


I asked Steve, “What if you don’t have an example? What if you just sense that something is off?” In these situations, Steve advises that you set up the conversation by saying, “I don’t have enough data, but this caught my attention.”


During the meeting:

It’s at this point Steve advises you to draw on the power of your relationship. “Ideally, you create a win-win situation, to build the relationship and strengthen mutual trust. When I assume the best of you, the conversation changes entirely.” To this, he uses the following process:

  • Confirm good will. This matters most for difficult conversations. In these situations, Steve will ask if the other person believes he has their best interest at heart. “If they answer with an authentic, ‘yes,’ I know they can hear this conversation as constructive rather than threatening. If they hesitate, I then focus on where our trust is broken. This creates a foundation for the rest of the conversation.”
  • Frame the conversation. Admit that the conversation is not easy, but that you’re committed to a positive outcome. Steve emphasizes his commitment to strengthening the relationship moving forward. Steve often brings the notes he prepared to the meeting. When the conversation is difficult, he’ll say, “This is a tough conversation, and I want to get it right. This is why I brought notes.”
  • Ask, “Were you aware you did this, and was this your intent?” There are two points to this question: awareness and intent. It’s possible the issue was inadvertent. This question allows the person to share their experience, and to address your perception.
  • Conclude with agreements. Steve believes this is the most important part of your conversation because it creates commitment to action. He often follows up with a thank you note that summarizes the mutual agreements from the conversation. According to Steve, “This is incredibly powerful. If the person doesn’t honor the commitment, you can move straight to the agreement. You can say, ‘Hey, didn’t we agree to X?’ instead of dredging up the whole conversation.”


Trust is based on commitments made and commitments honored. When you create clarity about what those commitments are, and your people deliver what you expect, you become more comfortable letting go of the detail.  You’ve effectively balanced trust and accountability.


Tricia Emerson is the founder and president of Emerson Human Capital Consulting, and author of several books on change management and leadership. Learn more at

Originally published at Forbes