When we surveyed more than 300 direct reports, they revealed six effective ways that managers build trust. But what about manager behaviours that break trust — in some cases instantly and irreparably? Here we share three trust-destroying acts that have such a big impact, according to direct reports, that managers may never recover from them.
1. Slipping up and revealing things told to you in confidence.
“My manager has shared personal things about other associates in my department, including disciplinary issues,” said one direct report. “One that stood out was her telling me why someone got fired … it made me realise that anything I do or say to her she’ll probably share with everyone else in my department.”
Granted, it isn’t always easy to tell what’s confidential. And sometimes, what you know about a direct report can provide others with helpful context. For instance, a team member’s health issues may help explain a project delay. But share the wrong thing, in the wrong way, or to the wrong person, and the effect can be more damaging than you’d think.
Specific ways managers slip up:
Assume that because information is positive, it’s OK to share. You publicly praise a direct report, figuring everyone likes to be recognised. But unbeknownst to you, the person is mortified. Maybe you misdiagnose his or her request to keep something private as false modesty. This may have been the case with one unhappy respondent: “When the company was having difficulty meeting payroll, I volunteered to put off my pay so some of the other employees could be paid. I asked my manager to keep it between us. Instead, he announced it at the next company meeting.”
Share more personal or performance information than is necessary. As your team’s manager, you’re privy to more information than any individual direct report. You might lose track of what you know and others don’t, automatically pull from your rich bank of info to emphasise a point, or think that confiding privileged information will build a bond with someone else. Bad idea. “My manager outed me as a lesbian to my whole team,” shared one betrayed respondent. Other times, you may be tempted to reveal information to employees about themselves that’s better left unsaid. For example, one direct report complained, “My manager told me I was lucky to have gotten hired in the first place, and it was only because they really needed someone. It made me feel like a crappy employee, and I never tried hard at the job because so little was expected of me.”
Gossip to a direct report as a means to vent frustration about a third party, rather than address issues directly. Coaching an oft-struggling direct report or listening to a colleague’s irrelevant stories requires a level of patience that isn’t easy to sustain. Many managers find themselves venting to a direct report. One respondent described a manager who was friendly with another co-worker: “They would chitchat about personal life, go out for lunch, etc. Then when this one co-worker was not in the office, my manager mentioned to me that they were stupid.” A person’s first thought in this situation is often What is my manager saying about me behind my back?
Tips to avoid these errors:
You could cover your ears and hide from all the uncomfortable aspects of your direct reports’ lives, ensuring that you avoid letting something slip. But at what cost? This same survey found that managers being open and responsive to what’s going on in their direct reports’ lives was one of the most effective (and easiest) ways to build trust.
To help identify whether you’re at risk of betraying someone’s confidence, during the next week, keep track of how many times you talk about someone when they’re not around. When you have sensitive information you’re about to share, consider if you’d say it the same way (or at all) if that person were in front of you. If it’s something you aren’t sure the person wants to be shared, ask them:
“Congrats again on [your industry award/new home/medical test results being negative/etc.]. Are you planning on making that public to the team? If you’re comfortable with it, I’m sure they’d be happy to hear it as well, but no pressure. If you’d prefer, we can keep it quiet.”
2. Unconsciously — or uncaringly! — playing favorites or giving the impression that you do.
“My current manager displays clear favoritism towards certain staff — they get bigger desks, window views, buy each other coffee and snacks … It’s a clique. If you are not in it, or complain, you get ignored or criticised, or an even worse desk,” bemoaned one respondent. Another summed up the effect of feeling boxed out of his manager’s inner circle: “I have lost a lot of morale and feel unappreciated.”
You’re bound to have more in common with some direct reports. You’ll see some more than others. You’ll likely appreciate those who do work that’s more aligned with your expectations. You do, however, need to be wary not to let these preferences undermine your professionalism and ability to be fair. Direct reports are quick to interpret any positive treatment of someone else as preferential. Note that the perception of favoritism was also a top complaint when we asked direct reports the No. 1 thing they wanted their manager to improve on.
Specific ways managers play favorites:
Let the behaviour of some team members slide while reprimanding others for similar missteps. “My manager would tell people that everyone had to keep moving during work hours, but she would let people slack off if she liked them,” one respondent observed. Who gets this special treatment? Friends, the more tenured, and, according to another respondent, “employees who support the manager’s decisions.”
Dole out assignments, praise, raises, and time off inequitably. “My manager paid my co-worker more just because he had been there longer. He worked way less than any of us and we had to pick up the slack. It was unfair — we were essentially doing his work and getting nothing for it,” said one direct report.
Tips to avoid these errors:
What should be evenly distributed, in your eyes and in your team’s eyes? Redirecting feedback? Praise? The effort you put in each direct report’s professional development? Overtime hours?
Interestingly, equity doesn’t always mean treating everyone exactly the same way, because people need different things. It’s often better to find out what is most important to each of your direct reports and be sure each is getting your attention in that critical area.
For example, your direct report who cares more about professional development than salary is going to be more attuned to team members getting more development opportunities than him or her, and vice versa.
3. Committing ethical transgressions — and then failing to see them as such and/or rationalising them.
Most of us think we’d never do something unethical, but research shows plenty of us do — perhaps because it’s easy to overlook or justify the harm we do by focusing on the good. More bad news: Research also suggests that managers are more likely to commit workplace transgressions than individual contributors because they typically have more means and opportunity. Also, the power they’ve gained may lull them into relaxing standards for their own behaviour.
You may excuse yourself, but others probably won’t. In addition, you may create a looser moral code for the team, indirectly encouraging the rest of the team to compromise their integrity. People take cues from their leaders.
Specific ways managers act unethically:
Justify any behaviour, so long as it helps the bottom line. “My manager chose the cheapest path versus the ethical path. I was stunned. I kept out of that project,” shared one respondent, highlighting an unexpected cost to acting unethically — that some talented, discerning direct reports may steer clear of you.
Use demeaning, hurtful language. Sometimes, this is straight hate — one respondent reported a manager using racial epithets. Other times, it reflects a feeble, cruel attempt at humor. Another person noted that his manager “was joking around with a co-worker and laughing at one of our mentally ill clients.”
Break the rules for personal gain. “My manager was supposed to work 45 hours a week,” one respondent shared. “However, he would schedule himself to work on Sunday mornings (a day the corporate people did not work) and he was never there. If he lied about his hours, then I felt like I didn’t need to do much on that day.”
Shortchange clients. One direct report told of her manager “cheating a client by giving a low-quality product.” Another mentioned cutting corners on a client contract: “My manager just skimmed over their contract and didn’t do what the client wanted.”
Tips to avoid these errors:
You’re less likely to grab the last two pieces of office birthday cake in a crowd than if it’s just you and the cake. Similarly, creating some checks and balances — like having someone else on the team or someone less partial, like a peer or internal mentor, review client contracts and/or expense reports — can help you be your best self.
It may also help to seek out stories of people being hurt in the workplace by derogatory language and behaviour. Reminding yourself of how others are wronged can help you stay vigilant and compassionate.
Keep in mind that some actions are unethical but not because they go against a policy or explicitly break a moral code. The transgression lies in the abuse of power, creating separate tiers for haves and have-nots — like a manager skipping out for personal reasons not granted to the team or taking too much credit for group achievements. In these cases, the answer may be to extend more privileges and/or recognition to others.