How to restore broken trust as a leader

Dear Dr. Sobande,

Kindly advise. I had a situation that I handled very badly with one of my team members. He disappeared from work, had been incommunicado, and had missed deadlines without feedback. His team was short-staffed, and the service was suffering, and things were going downhill fast. Eventually, I got hold of him and read him the riot act. I have always been direct and focused on performance, which has always worked for me. Plus, I was stressed because that wasn’t the only crisis landing on my desk at the time.

So, several weeks after, I thought nothing of it until his supervisor, my direct report, returned from her medical leave; she explained that his parents had suffered life-changing impacts resulting from an acute COVID infection and hospitalisation. Ironically, this team member had been sending texts and emails to his direct supervisor, but she was having her own medical crisis at the time and couldn’t escalate this to me.

I have just learned about all of this and feel terrible about it. My reputation has suffered, and I am being viewed as a heartless taskmaster.

How do I recover from this? How can I restore my reputation? Yes, I am performance-focused, but I am really not a heartless person.


Dear Richard,

I feel you and appreciate your self-awareness and willingness to take responsibility for causing someone pain and hardship. Some leaders would shrug it off and get on with things. I believe you are not heartless.

Here is my recommendation on how to redeem the situation. There is one short-term action you might take and other longer-term ones to consider. Start with an Apology to him and everyone on your team. I know saying “I am sorry” is hard for some leaders, and it remains a mystery to me. However, I have discovered that leaders who can’t apologise derive their self-worth from their performance and the opinion of others. They are afraid of appearing vulnerable and weak. It is pretty uncomfortable, so they choose to avoid it.

Here is the advice I often give to leaders in situations like this and why they should apologise:

a. Apologise as soon as possible after you recognise your error.

b. Be scrupulously honest and specific about what you did wrong and how you would correct it if you could.

c. Let go of any ideas you have about the outcome or results of your apology. You can’t go in with an authentic apology hoping for a quid pro quo.

d. Create a plan for how you might fix the situation you caused and share it with the appropriate people.

Next, you need to take some time to reflect on how your belief systems or attitudes about leadership and people influence the way this particular event played out. What might you need to change to prevent such behaviour in the future?

Read also: Why leaders must defeat a toxic workplace culture

Clearly, you have broken the trust of your people. Please read my previous articles on leadership and trust and then assess the specific areas that may apply to you. I love the fact that you are a self-aware leader. This is a good foundation for becoming believable and connecting with your team members again.

Honestly, if you care, and it sounds like you do, the next step is to take concrete steps to show it. Start with your immediate team and then branch out to peers and your customers

It appears that you are kind and don’t like to hurt others, which means you want to connect and be trusted. This is what you struggle with the most. When there is a lot at stake and a ton to do, the first thing that flies out the window is connection and trust, so I empathize with you.

To help you reconnect and restore the broken trust with your team members, here are a few questions to ponder:

– Do you communicate enough with each of your people to feel like you know them and they know you?

– Do you schedule a time and spend time simply connecting and conversing with your people?

– Do you genuinely care about others’ well-being?

– Have you made appropriate efforts to develop rapport with everyone on your team?

– Do people perceive you as generally kind and decent?

– Are you capable of demonstrating empathy?

– Do your people feel that you have their backs?

– Do you look for opportunities to acknowledge, encourage, praise, and advocate for others?

Honestly, if you care, and it sounds like you do, the next step is to take concrete steps to show it. Start with your immediate team and then branch out to peers and your customers. These steps could be regular one-on-one social meetings and group chats. I understand nobody wants more meetings, but getting together is a basic human need. Trust me, having lunch with team members who had their birthday in a month can make a big difference for your people. Anything you can do to spend time getting to know people will help.

Be mindful that work relationships are like all relationships they just require a little attention. Nobody wants a lot of friends who only call when they need something. You don’t want your team to automatically assume they are about to get yelled at when they see your name on their phone.

In future, to handle the situation better you can follow these rules of thumb:

1. When in doubt, ask questions first. What’s going on? Is always a good place to start.

2. Refrain from being judgmental and making spontaneous decisions

3. Except you have previous evidence, the person doesn’t deserve it; give them the benefit of the doubt.

4. There is always time to read people the riot act after you have ascertained that is what’s needed.

No doubt all of your natural tendencies to be direct and to focus on performance will still be there, don’t worry. No one is going to think you’ve gone soft. People might actually perceive you as someone who cares which affords you the opportunity to earn their trust.

Cheering you on,

Dr. Toye Sobande