By John Sullivan

During my first job, my manager sat our team down and told us that we would need to work overtime to meet our deadline, and that meant working through lunch that day. We left the pep talk and returned to our desks while our manager and his assistant walked out for lunch.

Inconsistent behavior—acting differently from what is communicated—is one of the quickest ways for a leader to lose trust. In a 1997 survey by consulting firm Manchester, most of the executives polled said it took an average of seven months for employees to build their trust in a leader but less than half that time for them to lose it.

“Trust is built by a succession of behaviors, not just words,” said John Mariotti, a management consultant with Shape Shifters and a former manufacturing CEO. “The old cliche ‘walk the talk’ is a good one. Behaviors speak much more loudly than words—and these are what build trust.”

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Build trust on a foundation of honesty
The prerequisite for trust is honesty, but honest intentions may not be enough when you don’t know what is expected of you. The challenge is to find out what your bosses really want. Building trust requires a manager to first have a thorough understanding of senior management’s expectations as well as the company’s objectives and mission. Mariotti said you can start building trust with your team “by leveling with them and telling them as much as you are sure of, and by asking them to work with you while you decipher the rest—and warning them that there could be some rapid changes as interpretations change.”

Managers need the team to understand how difficult it is to “decipher” expectations. Sometimes interpretations can be completely wrong. For example, many companies say, “We value education” (check the recruiting material) but then won’t allow someone to take a daytime class. As a manager, how do you explain the situation? It is difficult when the only reason the employee can’t take the daytime class is “it’s company policy.”

“Sometimes you can’t [explain] because there is no easy answer to give,” Mariotti said. “[Saying] ‘I’m sorry; I just can’t explain or justify that’ is all one can say.”

But interpretations of company policy can be used to your advantage. Every manager has some flexibility on the enforcement of rules and can use that flexibility to build trust. It may be against policy to take daytime courses, but you can probably allow a team member to come in early in order to make a 4 P.M. class. However, before using your own interpretations to benefit your team, realize that interpreting a policy differently means taking a risk, and once you make an interpretation, you have set a precedent and must consistently follow it.

When you bend the rules, be consistent
Another boss of mine always told us when the company was considering layoffs, even though this was against the rules. He did this at great personal risk, but it increased our respect for him. But once he did this, he had to consistently do it. He did, notifying us several times over the years of pending layoffs. Our role in this was to keep the information confidential—and we did.

This is the paradox of trust—to be trusted you must first trust others. In our case, smaller exchanges of trust were in place before each of the layoff warnings. The boss had built a relationship with us in many ways, mostly by allowing us to flex our schedules to attend to personal needs on company time—an “interpretation” he used to his advantage. Our part of the bargain was not only to get our work done on time but also to do it to his high standards. Having earned our trust in smaller ways, he knew he could trust us when it really counted.

Like my old boss, you may one day be caught in the managerial gap between personal values and corporate policy.

That’s when you will reap the benefits of being consistent. You’ll not only be able to get through the situation, but you’ll get to keep your self-respect.

This article was originally published on gantthead on Jan. 9, 2002.

John Sullivan is a technical manager for a Fortune 1000 IT company and has written extensively on project and career management issues. He is a contributing editor to PM Network, the official magazine of the Project Management Institute, where he writes “The Middle Ground” column.