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A Hidden Way You Could Be Breaking Trust Right Now

It’s funny what moments you remember as you look back on your career so far. There are many high points that I reflect warmly on, and also lots of painful lessons learned. I don’t think I’m alone in my leadership journey as someone who has learned just as much (if not more) from prior bosses about what not to do as a leader as what I should do. 

Angry boss points accusatory finger during a meeting with two team members

Even some of my favorite bosses of all time did some really damaging things. For example, one of my favorite managers was very emotionally driven. In itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wearing your heart on your sleeve can be a strength. However, when it comes to setting a tone and building trust with the people around you, wild emotional swings–especially when the brunt of those swings is taken out on your team members–can create a “Jekyll & Hyde” scenario where employees feel like they constantly need to walk on eggshells because if the boss is in a bad mood, the rest of us will pay the price. I had just such a boss (truthfully, I’ve had a few), and while I knew he was a great guy at his core, any time he got stressed out or received feedback he didn’t like, he would either shut down completely or blow up on people. I suffered the latter during a meeting that still lingers in my mind today. 

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, earlier in the day he’d had a meeting with some higher-ups that wanted more out of our team, even though our performance was exceptionally high. The change of direction sent him back to the team with a head full of steam, and in our next meeting, it seemed like every time he opened his mouth, it was to tell everyone how bad an idea was or how we needed to think bigger. When we got to my agenda item, I quickly found out that the info I was presenting wasn’t what he had been looking for. 

“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS, MATT??” he barked. The whole room tightened up and fell silent. “This is nothing like what you were supposed to bring today. I specifically asked you for [content redacted to protect the identity of the boss]. This brings absolutely nothing relevant to this meeting. Why are we even here?? In fact, this meeting is just pissing me off. Let’s just call the meeting and try again tomorrow.” And with that, he got up and stormed out. 

The rest of us sat there in shock. “....what just happened?” asked one of my teammates. “I have no idea…He never asked me for that stuff. I presented EXACTLY what he asked me for. It’s even in our last email exchange,” I said quietly. We all silently gathered our things and walked back to our desks. As we left the conference room we saw employees in the nearby vicinity all staring at us, clearly wondering what just happened in there after hearing the yelling. 

I went back to my desk fuming. As I sat down, I begrudgingly began researching the data he described during his tirade. After about thirty minutes, he came by my desk and asked me to follow him to a conference room. My immediate thought was, “This is it. He’s firing me. He has been with HR getting the paperwork filed for the past half hour and this is where I get escorted from the building with a box of my stuff.” As we passed my teammates' desks, I could see through their eyes that they were thinking something similar. 

As we entered the conference room, he actually apologized. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry for the way I handled that during our meeting. I looked back through our email chain and realized that I asked you for the wrong data. That was my fault. I didn’t mean to blow up on you like that. I just had a really crappy meeting with [executive names redacted] and they put me through the wringer about new stuff we are going to be expected to do…” He went on to explain the situation and apologize once again. He even promised it wouldn’t happen again (and to his credit, it never did). 

While he absolutely did the right thing by apologizing and correcting his behavior, the damage that his actions did to our relationship never fully healed–especially because he may have adjusted that behavior towards me, but I still would see him blow up on other people every now and again. 

This emotional volatility made it really hard for me to feel like I knew and could trust “the real” him. Was the friendly, understanding, empathetic guy his true self? Or was it the rude, callous, screaming guy? It’s hard to know for sure. 

I’ve run workshops around building thriving team cultures and trusting environments for years, and I can tell you that one of the top answers I get when I ask people what builds trust with them is consistency. And while yes, that means demonstrating reliability through habits over time, a huge amount of people actually describe it more as a consistency of demeanor. They want to know that the person they see when times are good is going to be that same person when times get tough. It’s easy to value me when we both feel great and no issues arise. The true test of a leader’s character is how much you are still willing to show up and give, even when it means you will have to sacrifice–when you are frustrated, scared, and/or insecure. That doesn’t mean we can’t have our off-days; after all, none of us is perfect. But is it a consistent pattern that when you aren’t in a good mood people feel like they need to avoid you? Is it easy for the team to tell by how you show up on calls or in meetings that you are stressed or frustrated? If so, it may be useful for you to work on your consistency of demeanor. If you don’t, you may be breaking trust with your people in a way that you never saw coming.

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