With Martin G. Moore

Episode #283

Trusting Your Team: Are you making this mistake?

When we talk about trust in the context of leadership, it’s normally about how to get your people to trust you! And, of course, this should be a critical focus for leaders at every level.

But today’s topic runs a little deeper: how much trust should you give to the managers who work for you?

Regardless of your org structure or the size of your team, at least some of your direct reports are bound to tell you that you should give them unconditional trust — to give them the benefit of the doubt, in every situation.

This raises a number of important questions: should your trust be unconditional? When should you choose not to give someone the benefit of the doubt? Should you trust every person equally?

In today’s episode, I begin by explaining why trust has to be both given and earned. I explore how to deal with opinions, assertions, and unsupported claims in your leadership team. And I finish with some guidelines for making your interventions feel like they are trusting enquiries, not overbearing micromanagement.

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Episode #283 Trusting Your Team: Are you making this mistake?

The door swings both ways

I received a question recently from one of our super fans and Leadership Beyond the Theory graduate Tom Latanik, about trust. I mention the principle of trust quite often in passing. In fact, one of my favorite expressions, which I coined during my corporate executive career is, “If your people trust and respect you, there’s nothing you can’t say to them.

That’s a fantastic mantra to use if you’re trying to get over your fear of giving feedback.

When we talk about trust in the context of leadership, it’s normally about how to get your people to trust you. And, of course, this should be a critical focus for leaders at every level.

But Tom’s question runs a little deeper. To paraphrase, Tom asks, “As a more senior leader with multiple layers of people below you, how much trust should you give your managers?”. This is a great question because there are quite a few subtleties here.

Regardless of your org structure or the size of your team, you’re bound to have at least some of your direct reports telling you that you should give them unconditional trust — to give them the benefit of the doubt in every situation.

This raises several important questions:

  • Should your trust for your people be unconditional?

  • How can you demonstrate that trust to them?

  • When should you choose not to give them the benefit of the doubt?

  • Should you trust every person equally? and

  • What’s the difference between being diligent and micromanaging?

Most importantly, how do you balance all these factors to bring out the best performance in each and every one of your people (which, of course, is your ultimate objective)?

In this episode, I begin by explaining why trust has to be both given and earned. I then explore the phenomenon of opinion, assertions, and unsupported claims in your leadership team. And I finish with some guidelines for making your interventions feel like they are trusting inquiries, not overbearing micromanagement.


Trust has to be both given and earned.

I worked with thousands of leaders over the course of my corporate career and many more since I started this business over five years ago. It’s fair to say that virtually every leader has a different approach to building trust, and they have different philosophies on how much trust their people deserve as a default.

  • Do your people have an automatic, natural right to your trust, or should they have to earn it?

  • What things would you consider to be a breach of trust?

  • How should you respond to actions that you consider untrustworthy?

  • And what happens when someone whom you trust implicitly does something to break that trust?

It’s a highly complex area of leadership with an almost infinite set of permutations and combinations.

As a corporate executive, my approach to trusting the people who worked for me was pretty straightforward: If you had come to work for me, on that very first day, you had my absolute trust in every area of your work:

  • Trust in your competence and capability…

  • Trust in your work ethic and commitment…

  • Trust in your ability to get things done…

  • Trust in your willingness to take accountability…

  • Trust in your professionalism and your judgment…

  • Trust in your level of organizational maturity…

  • Trust in your desire to treat the people around you respectfully, and most importantly…

  • Trust in your ethics and integrity.

It would then be up to you to not break that trust… and, over time, to make me feel as though you repaid the favor by earning the trust that you’ve been given unconditionally at the outset.

Breaching trust in any one of these areas wouldn’t necessarily have rendered you untrustworthy. If you made the odd mistake, that was fine. In fact, I’d probably be more worried if you didn’t. Let’s face it, trust isn’t a binary concept, but it would definitely raise a flag that told me I needed to keep a closer eye on you in that particular area of concern.

And, if trust was breached in one of the really critical areas (like ethics, integrity, or professionalism), it may have been a showstopper.

But even small breaches of trust tended to chip away at the unconditional trust that you were gifted at the start. And, at some point, if the behavior wasn’t corrected, there would most likely be a point where the straw could break the camel’s back.

Fortunately for you though, if you were working for me, you would’ve had crystal clear feedback on any issues of trust, as they arose. If I ever felt as though my trust had been breached, you would’ve been the first to know about it.

So, as you can probably tell, I thought this through pretty carefully. I have a very clear view on how to manage trust in my relationships with my people. I can articulate those views and principles really clearly, and I know how to respond to any given situation that involves a breach of trust.

But still, in the early stages of my leadership career, there was one fundamental mistake that I made… repeatedly.


In the early stages of my career, I gave my people the benefit of the doubt, to a fault. I trusted their professionalism, their expertise, and their ability to deliver on their accountabilities. And I trusted what they told me because I wasn’t a micromanager… but I simply gave them too much rope.

And here’s the rub: when I had highly capable people working for me, this worked incredibly well. They’d just get on with it, they delivered beyond my wildest expectations and they vindicated the trust I had given them. It was the embodiment of that old principle, “Hire great people and get out of their way.

But it was also my Achilles Heel. It was a weakness in my management technique, because when I had someone who wasn’t as capable, it was disastrous. I chose to trust them, which wasn’t the problem in itself. The problem was that I was watching their lips, not their feet. And in executive ranks, everyone talks a good game. You have to watch what people do, not just take what they say on face value.

My mistake was that, in some cases, I was giving people more trust than they were ready to shoulder.

So, I had to learn to be more diligent in my inquiry of progress, and my confirmation of delivery. I learned to get better at inspecting outputs. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust but verify.” Once you learn how to do this, you can create an incredible execution machine. It enables you to give people as much freedom as they need to do their jobs, but also lets them know that you’re focused on seeing tangible results.

In these days of hybrid work, this is an essential skill. It enables you to manage for value (which is to say, outcomes), rather than activity (which is to say, inputs). This has always been the most effective way of leading: evaluating outcomes based on their merits, not things like time in the office or volumes of work produced, which are quite poor proxies for performance.

As it turns out, there’s a happy convergence of trust, accountability, and high performance leadership in this post COVID world.


Let’s get back to another aspect of Tom’s question. A common problem in management is that everyone has an opinion, and in many management teams and group forums, the person who speaks most convincingly and forcefully often ends up having their opinion accepted. They’re persuasive people!

But many confident statements made by smart people have absolutely no basis in fact, and no foundation in truth… and they hold no more value than anyone else’s opinion.

If you’re a confident and eloquent communicator, this is going to work in your favor, but you shouldn’t expect that your opinions are going to be accepted on face value. A good boss will expect you to support your views with facts. And you should expect nothing less!

W. Edwards Deming, the father of the modern quality movement, and the man widely credited with helping Japan to build its postwar economy into a global powerhouse, once said, “In God, we trust. All others must bring data.

The requirement to substantiate your opinions isn’t a question of trust. In fact, it has nothing to do with trust. It’s simply a reality of sound decision-making. There will generally be lots of smart people in a room when you try to debate any topic, and it’s surprising how many senior people simply can’t back their assertions with facts. If you’re leading these people, you have an obligation to dig deeper.

A question that I’ve asked thousands of times over the years when smart people make unsupported statements is, “What’s your evidence for that?

If you pay attention to this, you’re going to begin to see how many statements your people make that are completely unsupported. People will tell you emphatically what your customers want; they’ll tell you what the most effective solution is to a problem; they’ll tell you what your competitors are thinking. But mostly, their views are anecdotal.

This is why I’m generally at pains to start any statement I make by giving some context on my basis for making it. You may have heard me say things like, “Look, I have no basis in fact for this, but my anecdotal observation is… X.” Or sometimes I’ll say, “Based on my limited sample set of two companies in this industry, I’ve got a sense that… X.”

There’s a very important point to take out of this. Supporting your statements is about professionalism, not trust. And there are lots of ways to support any statement. You can do it by citing research and facts. You can quote people who are generally accepted as experts in that field. You can even position something simply as your personal opinion based on your own experience and judgment. And let’s face it, experience and judgment absolutely play a part. These are essential weapons in your decision-making arsenal. In fact, I did a podcast episode ages ago that addresses this issue: Ep.112: Is Gut Feel a Thing?

But no matter how your people support it, they should be happy to explain the basis for any view they hold. Then others can judge the reliability of that source, and debate the issue accordingly.

I want to go a little further here. I would suggest that anyone who tells you that you should simply trust their opinion, without any support for that opinion, is hoisting a red flag. And if it were me, I would become even more diligent in checking every decision and any solution that they came up with.


We’ve covered the need to inspect outputs: trust, but verify. And we’ve looked at the need for opinions to be substantiated by some sort of factual foundation. Neither of these are negatives, in the world of trusting your people.

But the final piece of this puzzle is one that can be a trust signal you send to your people, and that is: how involved are you in your people’s work?

It’s the balance you need to strike between being diligent in ensuring that the right outcomes are achieved, and not micromanaging or usurping your people’s accountability. This is about working at the right level. You should be doing the job you are paid to do and allowing your people to do the job that they’re paid to do.

If you intervene constantly in your people’s work, or you question them about the fine detail of their daily activities, you are signaling a lack of trust. This should only happen if you have a really good reason to do it. But how do you get this right? There are four indicators you can check yourself on:

  1. Are you inspecting outputs or inputs? All your focus should be on value delivered and outcomes achieved. If you stray into the territory of their inputs, they will feel as though you don’t trust them to do their job.

  2. Are you asking questions or are you giving directions? This makes a really big difference. Phrasing something as a question feels completely different to telling someone what to do, even though they often have the same practical effect.

    For example, you could say to someone, “I don’t think that’s right. I want you to do it this way instead.” But a better way to achieve exactly the same thing would be to ask the question, “Are you sure that’s the best solution? Can you think of any other options for getting the result?

  3. Are your questions positioned at the appropriate level of detail? Asking someone how they arrived at a particular outcome is very different from asking them what process they followed when they moved the widget from the left side of the desk to the right side of the desk.

    Asking someone what options they considered in formulating a solution is very different from asking them to explain one of the low-level assumptions that isn’t significant to the outcome.

  4. Are you respecting the person’s ability to do their job? As long as someone is meeting your minimum acceptable standard, do they feel as though they have your trust, confidence, and support?

You can test yourself against these questions anytime, and adjust accordingly. It’s going to help you to stay on the right side of the trust equation when dealing with your solid performers.


Of course, there’s still one problem. What happens when people don’t earn the trust you’ve given them… when their performance is substandard? This is where we have to work backwards from our starting point of 100% trust.

If you see gaps in someone’s performance, you have to get a little closer to them. Let’s assume you’ve already given them direction and guidance and you’ve given them a lot of autonomy in order to go away and meet your expectations. If they don’t, then they’re going to need some more specific direction. And, sometimes, even after you give them more direction, it doesn’t make much difference, so you have to get closer still.

In fact, you may need to get more and more directive over time until you get to the point where someone can do the job to the standard you expect. You basically have to ratchet up the pressure and narrow in on the detail of the job to help someone to get on track.

Clearly, they’re going to feel this additional scrutiny, and it will bother them: because it’s obvious that they don’t have 100% of your trust. And they’ll also know that you’re not going to accept substandard performance. But every time you decide to get closer, it has to come with clear, specific, targeted feedback. They need to know that you are intentionally getting closer to their work, and they need to know why you are doing it.

Part of my standard languaging for these situations went something like this: “Look, I’d love to just be able to give you the benefit of the doubt and let you get on with it, but you’re not achieving the outcomes that we agreed on. I want to help you to be successful, but to do that, I have to get closer to your work to see why the things you’re doing aren’t achieving the right results.

This is just part of the coaching process. People need to know that you have standards for performance that you won’t compromise, and that they’ll have to meet that standard to be successful. But they also need to know that you’re going to help them by working out what they’re doing that isn’t working, and help them rectify it.

As people start to improve under the extra scrutiny, they need to know that you can’t be in that level of detail indefinitely. So, I would often say things like, “Look, I can’t be in here helping you to do your job in the future. I have my own job to do. At some point, you have to perform without my day-to-day intervention.

This makes expectations super clear. In these cases, it’s not just that you’ve randomly decided to trust or not trust someone. You’re giving them direct, specific guidance on why you’re intervening and what they need to do to earn the trust that you would like them to have.


Trusting your people by default is essential, if you don’t want to spend your life worrying about whether or not you actually can trust them. But part of the role of being a great leader is to have a high level of diligence around performance at an individual level.

Some people will inherently be more trustworthy than others. You no doubt have some people on your team who you can give a task to, and you know they’ll absolutely nail it, with very little input from you. But I’m sure you have other people who you know you’ll have to babysit through every step of the process.

As a leader, you need to be able to tell the difference and give each individual the trust that they earn.



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