I Can’t Believe They Said That!

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Employee doesn't respect or trust me

Has an employee ever told you that they don’t respect or trust you?

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If you’ve ever been in the unfortunate position where a key employee hit you with such an unwelcomed declaration, you know it can sting and often catches you off guard. While there is no precise prescription for making this problem go away (it’s a series of judgment calls), here are a few things that a client and I walked through to sort the issue. 


Consider the words

First, consider whether you think the statement came from a place of courage or arrogance. If you believe the statement came from a place of arrogance (and simple disrespect), it’s time to part ways. Any direct report with the temerity to tell you such from a place of arrogance is someone you should not trust and is likely someone you already distrust. While it never feels good to terminate someone or encourage them to leave your team and organization, the stress of constantly questioning whether you can rely on them leads to resentment and marginalizing behaviors. CUT YOUR LOSSES. Be thoughtful about how you do it (data tells us that wrongful termination lawsuits are often triggered by how a person feels that they are treated during the termination process), but do it. 


Begin with asking yourself: The Three Questions

On the other hand, if you believe the employee’s words, “I don’t respect or trust you” spoke from a place of courage and respect, it’s the feedback that you should sift carefully. Begin with asking yourself, “What, exactly, is the employee is trying to tell me and what do they want to do?” Question1: is the employee criticizing an aspect of how you lead; thus, is the issue a conflict over priorities, methods, etc?  Question 2: could the issue be about your leadership values and how they are impacting the team and organizational culture? Question 3: is the issue about the overall direction in which you’re taking the team and your vision for the organization? 


Start with question three because it may make eliminate the need to focus on questions one and two. Alignment issues divide employees and challenge the use of resources. So, if the direction of the organization is clear and not going to change, the employee is telling you, perhaps unwittingly, that they aren’t aligned. You must figure out whether the misalignment comes from not buying into the mission, whether they strongly object to your strategy for implementing the mission, and whether you think the person can be brought into alignment. If the gap cannot be closed, the person needs to go. 


Questions 1 and 2 may actually be useful for you to ponder. The person may be pointing to issues in your blindspot: are you willing to be introspective? Power and organizational dynamics often prevent the type of dialogue that helps leaders from getting honest feedback about how they come across to others. The Johari Window image below captures four dimensions of self-awareness and interpersonal relationship. Do you have a coach or someone that you trust to help you process the feedback and work through your window? 



I Can't Believe They Said That! Employee doesn't respect or trust me


As you consider the feedback, ask yourself these questions as well: 


  • “What has happened from that person’s point of view that would make the critique accurate?” 
  • How does knowing that you are perceived in such a way impact your reputation and self-perception as a leader?


These questions will help you respond with greater integrity. While it is natural to be upset, it is not okay to retaliate against someone because your ego is bruised. Further, it is also worth asking yourself whether you need and want more honesty from leaders on your team: 88% of people who work on projects or initiatives predict that they will fail and characterize the process as a slow-motion train wreck because it is politically acceptable to speak openly about what is going wrong. As you ponder your reaction, you cannot forget that other employees are watching: do you want to encourage greater transparency and how it could be beneficial to your organization? By the same token, you should consider the impact of shutting down an attempt to give you feedback, particularly if you don’t know how widespread that perception is.  

The Takeaway

But here are the two most important things: resisting the temptation to avoid revisiting the situation and deciding whether you believe the relationship can be repaired. Avoiding the situation will lead to increased tension and so will not firmly deciding whether you think the relationship is worth rebuilding AND COMMITTING TO THE WORK OF DOING SO. If the breach is too great, you’ll need to begin working on an off-boarding strategy. In either case, you should have enough integrity, to be honest with yourself and the employee about your motives.


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