Five Ways to Build Distrust

by  Jon Mertz  |  Self Leadership

The Hard Truth About TrustThere are certain core leadership principles that run deep in leading well, and one is trust. Trust doesn’t just happen. Although trust should be second nature, the reality is trust takes effort. This isn’t an effort in a time-consuming way but in a fully-engaged leading way. In fact, distrust is easier to do and may be why leaders fall into this trap. Some leaders are just lazy. The result: They build distrust.

5 ways to build distrust

Here are five ways someone builds distrust within an organization.

1 – Send a detailed list of tasks before a project begins.

As we take on a new project (large or small), we receive an email detailing out all the steps we need to take as if we are some incapable fool who needs to be told what to do and not do. Some call this micro-managing. For me, it is worse. Sending detailed lists of what to do signifies unwarranted distrust. The detailed list assumes someone will be error-prone even before they take the first step forward.

2 – Thank someone only for insignificant things worked on.

In tenuous working relationships, we receive the tepid gratitude on very small things. Receiving this limited gratitude is like getting a ribbon for participation. No one wants to be thanked for just showing up and then ignored for the bigger achievements done. For the person delivering the small words of gratitude, they want to feel like they are saying “I trust you” yet they are really saying “You can do the small things well but not the big things.”

3 – Host a brainstorming session so only your ideas can be adopted.

A big meeting is scheduled to brainstorm new ideas on how to resolve a problem or undertake an initiative. The reality of the situation is the one calling the “brainstorming” session is just calling a session to validate their ideas. No real brainstorming actually occurs. These sessions are just tense re-hashing of old ideas, ones that certain leaders may be more comfortable.

4 – Change the team’s direction when the manager is out of the office.

The ultimate distrust is when another manager changes a team’s direction or introduces a new approach when the team’s manager is out of the office. Distrust is abound, along with undercutting the credibility of the manager. Sucking the credibility out of another leader is worse than firing them.

5 – Talk endlessly at someone.

Conversations are two-way. For some though, conversations are an opportunity to lecture. These “talks” happen under the guise of a conversation but they are really just lecture time. Remember the old ad of a guy sitting in front of a speaker with his hair blowing from the sound of a Maxell cassette tape? This is what I mean. Distrust is built in one-way lectures promoted as a conversation.

Warning: Please don’t do these things! The costs of leading your organization will skyrocket and, ultimately, you will fail. Instead, heed the warning and:

  1. Empower people in trust as projects get underway
  2. Exhibit gratitude in large and small achievements
  3. Let ideas flourish from all levels
  4. Support managers in their growth and leadership capabilities
  5. Listen to understand

Trust is a leadership imperative

The message is simple.

Don’t be a lazy leader.

Be a leader centered in trust.

Build trust even when it is challenging to do so.

As leaders, we need to set the trust example in all we do and say. Building trust is about working within and between generations. What could be more important?

Just remember. Building distrust saps the spirit out of all involved. Leading with trust sparks the spirit in all.

How do you build and empower trust within organizations?

About The Author

Articles By jon-mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. At Thin Difference, Jon writes and facilitates a conversation on how to empower, challenge, and guide the next generation of leaders.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Randy Conley  |  09 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Great points Jon. A theme I see running through your five examples is self-centeredness. Leaders who are self-focused tend to behave in ways that erode trust, whereas leaders who are other-focused tend to build trust. The choice is ours.

I appreciate your commitment to being a Trust Activist!


Jon Mertz  |  09 Apr 2014  |  Reply


That is a great insight on the distrust elements. Being self-centered does lead to fostering an attitude and culture of distrust. Leaders need to make a better, active way to lead, fully in trust. Thanks for all you do in advancing trust in leadership!


Dr. Dennis Reina  |  09 Apr 2014  |  Reply

I agree, Jon, Trust is energy producing and an essential leadership imperative. It is the foundation of a leader’s effectiveness and credibility. And, Trust requires effort- starting with oneself- a leader’s self-awareness. The more aware a leader is regarding their behavior with those with whom they work (and serve), the more they can choose to show up in a way that builds trust (versus distrust).
When a leader is self-aware and consciously and consistently practicing the behaviors of the three dimensions of Trust (Trust of CharacterTM, Trust of CommunicationTM, Trust of CapabilityTM), they strengthen their working relationships, increase their effectiveness, and enhance their leadership credibility and trustworthiness.

Jon Mertz  |  09 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Dr. Reina,

Great points. Self awareness is fundamental to lead with trust. Using self awareness, we can rise up to a higher purpose in what we do and how we build relationships. A conscious leader is a leader who will build trust and exhibit trust in all they do and say. Thanks for adding to the conversation!


Sean Glaze  |  15 Apr 2014  |  Reply

Jon –
Enjoyed the article… many great points here.
Trust, I think, is a positive assumption based on previous attitudes and actions. We create and maintain it by being consistently competent and concerned with others’ needs!
Thanks for a good read-

Jon Mertz  |  15 Apr 2014  |  Reply


Thanks so much for your added insights. Many of the attributes you highlight relate to leading with empathy, I believe. Understanding others and leading appropriately empower trust more fully. Our actions and attitudes make a BIG difference.



Join The Conversation