how to lose your boss’s trust

Your relationship with your boss is one of the biggest determining factors in how happy you’ll be at work – and how happy your employer will be with you. A key part of that relationship is how much your boss trusts you – which dictates everything from how much freedom your boss gives you in the course of your daily work to whether you’re recommended for high-profile projects and promotions. But it doesn’t take much to lose that trust and significantly damage this key relationship.

Here are seven ways you can lose your boss’s trust and have a hard time gaining it back.

1. Not keeping commitments. The most fundamental expectation that your boss has of you is that you’ll do what you say you’ll do or what you’re assigned. If you don’t keep those commitments, your manager won’t be able to trust that work is getting carried out in the way she expects – which is one of the most damaging things for your boss to believe about you. That’s why it’s key to be vigilant about doing what you say you’ll do, by the timeframe you’ve committed to do it in – and update people accordingly when a timeline needs to change. Chronically falling short on this front can lead to a relationship where your boss doesn’t rely on anything you say.

2. Not keeping your boss in the loop when it counts. A good boss won’t expect you to report on every detail of your work to her – but will expect that you’ll proactively inform her when it really matters, since as when a client is angry, a project is careening toward disaster, or a major decision needs to be made. If your boss isn’t confident that you have the judgment to know when to loop her in, she’s likely to feel that she needs to dig around to find out what’s going on in your realm … and neither of you will enjoy that. You’re much better off showing her that keep her in the loop on your own.

3. Guessing when you don’t know the answer. It might feel reasonable to make a best guess when you don’t know an answer, but that means that some of the time, you’ll probably be supplying wrong information. And since your boss isn’t asking you questions just to entertain herself, she’ll then presumably be making decisions or taking actions based on faulty information. So if you’re not sure about something, say so (and then say you’ll find out the answer).

4. Not taking responsibility for your mistakes. Reasonable bosses know that employees are human and that mistakes will sometimes happen. But if you don’t take responsibility when mistakes happen or you make excuses or become defensive, your boss will worry that you don’t understand why the mistake happened in the first place – and that means she won’t be able to trust you to avoid mistakes in the future.

5. Not being up-front about your biases. It’s fine to have biases; we all have them. But if you hide your biases from your boss and she eventually uncovers them, you’ll have damaged your credibility with her. On the other hand, if you openly own up to your biases, you can earn lasting credibility. For instance, if you’re complaining about a coworker’s work quality and your manager has seen in the past that you don’t particularly like this coworker, you’re going to be a lot more credible if you say something like, “I want to acknowledge that Jane and I have never clicked, and it’s possible that it’s coloring my view.”

6. Not speaking up when you disagree on significant issues. Good managers want to work with straight-shooters who they can count on to provide honest input, especially when asked and especially when the input could steer the team away from a bad decision. If a project goes bad, you’ll lose your manager’s trust if she finds out that you always thought it was a bad idea but didn’t bother speaking up about it because you didn’t want to make waves. (This assumes, of course, that the manager has made it safe for people to disagree with her and openly voice dissent.)

7. Complaining about your boss behind her back, or otherwise being a toxic influence in the workplace. To be clear, a good boss wants to hear if you have complaints about her management, your work, or other substantive issues. But that means talking with her directly, not complaining behind her back. If your boss hears that you’ve been chronically complaining to others, she’ll understandably be concerned that you’re undermining her – and more broadly, that you’re spreading negativity around the workplace. And that’s very hard to recover from.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. cajun2core*

    #6 – The key phrase here is “good managers”. I have worked for someone who wanted “yes” people working for him. It was not fun b/c I am anything but a “yes” person.

      1. Joey*

        That’s a great trait as long as you’re not misinterpreting what a yes boss is.

        Bad yes boss=does not like any criticism or hint of an idea that this could be done better.

        Good yes boss=welcomes criticism, but after the final decision is made expects everyone on the team to accept and embrace the decision even when you still disagree.

        1. NylaW*

          That’s not what people typically think of when they hear someone talk about having a “yes boss.” What you describe is what should always be the case when your boss makes a decision.

          1. Anon*

            But oh-so-often it’s not. Having staff second-guess your decisions (or even just hint that they think you made the wrong choice) is so insanely commonplace — and does nothing but stress bosses out, and as Alison says, lose faith with their employees — especially when it’s in front of other staff. There is so much behind-the-scenes stuff that most employees know nothing about (and rightly so), but a lot of lower-level people don’t realize how much damage that kind of second-guessing can do when it’s in front of the wrong people.

  2. TheSnarkyB*

    Ah, I see no comments allowed on the sponsored post – good call.
    I have to say, I thought it was really well done this time. I also fully accept the possibility that it was done exactly the same as always, and I just have a biased memory that is quick to judge.
    Thanks for all you do :)

      1. Jessa*

        I don’t care about the comments thing, I just wanted to say that Lucy is beautiful. Olive may get more attention because of her amazing coloured coat (cue Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamkitty Coat?)

      2. Joey*

        Maybe I’ve seen too many commercials, but I just knew “meet Lucy” was going to be a pitch to adopt or go to buy all of the things the cost of a cup for coffee a day will provide.

      3. danr*

        I had a survey from Sheba pop up when I came back to AAM. Most of the responses so far are “I don’t own a cat”… We do have a visiting ginger tom who feels that our deck is his daytime home.

        1. Elsajeni*

          I got a pop-up survey, too. Alison, I feel like you’ve said in previous comment threads that those aren’t supposed to show up here — should I send you a screencap, or is this an “allowed” one because it’s associated with a sponsored post?

      4. Elizabeth West*

        I had to laugh at “I think she wishes that she could turn Olive on and off at will.” It made me think of Maru and how he lets Hana run around and bat at him like a crazy kitty and just lies there and whaps him (her?) every once in a while. :)

        1. Jen RO*

          That is exactly how my cats behave too, it’s hilarious. I think the older one misses the boring days when he was alone!

    1. JC*

      I second that–good call at not allowing comments. I was kind of put off by the last sponsored post being about cat stuff out of the blue, but now that there are more than one they have grown on me and I find them hilarious and awesome.

    2. Evan*

      This has exactly no bearing on the content of the sponsored post, but seeing the juxtaposition in the sidebar

      how to lose your boss’s trust
      meet Lucy

      was fun.

  3. Lizabeth*

    I wish I could get away with printing this column out and putting on the chair of a certain someone…our office is too small!

    1. Anon*

      I will be emailing my direct reports a link at the end of the day — no reason they should be offended when I present it as a, “You all are usually pretty good about all of this stuff, but I found it really useful to read and thought you might as well! Now I know how to not annoy MyBigBoss all the time!”

      I have a good relationship with all of them and know they won’t take it personally, especially if it goes to the whole group.

      1. A Teacher*

        You hope. At my school, our boss has done this and she has a pretty good relationship and usually I still hear the “if someone is doing one of these, they should talk to that person not send this out to everyone.”

  4. Joey*

    Some biases, yes. But how could openly telling the boss you are tend to be biased against females or minorities (or any other group)ever do more good than harm?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sure. I’m thinking more along the lines of “I want to be up-front about the fact that I’ve been skeptical of Joe’s ability ever since he (insert disaster here), so that could be coloring my views here.”

      1. Elizabeth*

        How about “she threatens to quit every time something happens that she doesn’t like, so I don’t trust her anymore”?

    2. James M*

      I think #5 is about biases toward individuals or specific groups you have personally encountered (e.g: the tattooed intern or the sales department at Tapioca Teapots Inc.). I wouldn’t conflate prejudices with biases.

  5. Anonymous*

    #3: My boss asks me to guess all the time. Or asks for answers that don’t have an answer that isn’t a guess. I always try to be upfront about it but it does make me uncomfortable.

    “I’m not sure how long that will take Other Org, I think about 3 weeks, based on what it has taken before.”
    “I’m not sure what happened, I’m trying to get more information but my guess is X and it will happen again if Y.”

    I’m usually correct but certainly not always. Is this a problem.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, it’s different if you’re specifically being asked to guess, or are identifying it as a guess. The issue I was talking about in the post is guessing but presenting it as fact.

        1. Anonymous*

          I’m always very clear when it is a guess. But it still makes me uncomfortable to be asked to guess.

          1. Joey*

            Get used to it. In a lot of careers the higher you go the more you have to guess. Granted, you typically won’t blindly guess, but rarely will there be a correct answer or the correct path to get there.

            1. Anonymous*

              Very true. This job I’m being asked to guess more and more and it is clear that part of that is that my opinion and estimations are more valuable.

    1. Clever Name*

      Yeah, one of my areas identified for development is being more comfortable “guessing” or finding the answers on my own, which is really hard for me, because I like precision and efficiency. It’s so much faster to just ask the person who I know has the right answer, but my boss is right; sometimes one learns better when one has to come up with the answer themselves. Luckily, the answers I come up with are usually right. :)

      1. Marcy*

        And it is also very annoying for the person who is always being asked those questions. I often end up working late because I get a lot of questions from people who think it is faster to just ask me than to figure it out themselves. It is faster for them. It is not faster for me. It disrupts my work and I get stuck working late. I’ve recently started answering questions with “what does your procedures manual say?” and “what else have you done to figure it out?”. I’m hoping that will help and then they will only come to me with things they really can’t do on their own.

        1. Clever Name*

          Very true! Thanks for reminding me of this aspect. Sometimes I have a hard time stepping in the other persons shoes.

  6. Artemesia*

    Very good advice. I parlayed a disaster where I lost my job in a merger and didn’t have good local options and had already moved my husband’s career once (his was not a mobile career) and felt I couldn’t do that again — by first getting a possibly temporary gig in the merger transition as an assistant to the key manager of a division and then by getting a reputation with him as the one person who would call it like I see it I rescued my career. He was surrounded by tactful people; by being the S#$% detector from my history with the company and ability to evaluate data, I was able to save him from disaster a couple of times and that led to a long term and continually improving position within the company.

    I am not sure all managers want a straight shooter, but it is a nice niche to carve out in many places. Sure worked for me.

      1. Artemesia*

        It is so nice to work for a mentally healthy manager — I have had some doozies including one who later committed suicide after making everyone’s life a misery.

        This guy was great. I became the straight shooter after sitting through a policy meeting where I kept thinking ‘that can’t be right– but he got this data from top management, so he must know something I don’t know’ and then watching disaster unfold because what I ‘knew’ was accurate and he had been fed a line of optimistic numbers when he was recruited to run the place. After that I spoke truth to power and we became a great team and turned the place around.

        He didn’t always take my advise, but he always listened.

  7. James M*

    #4: I think “…won’t be able to trust you to avoid mistakes in the future.” should read “…won’t be able to trust you to avoid the same mistake in the future.” Since avoiding mistakes entirely is hard to do.

    #7 includes social media and blogs. Recall the recent post about the tweettler who scuttled a job offer.

  8. Another Anon*

    Alison, is there anything you can do to regain your boss’ trust after losing it? I had gone to Employee Relations looking for strategies to cope with a work issue and they pretty much immediately reprimanded my manager and the manager’s manager. Now my manager is polite, but cold and distant towards me. Is the relationship ruined permanently?

    1. Positivity Boy*

      I think being honest and upfront about what happened would be a good start – admitting that you went to employee relations about the problem, but that you went with the intention of seeking assistance so that you could address the problem yourself and instead it was taken out of your hands without your knowledge/consent. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes – it probably looks like you went to ER because you didn’t want to speak to them directly, so they’re probably worried that you don’t trust them enough to handle feedback from you honestly. If they think you don’t trust them, it’s hard for them to trust you. Be clear that you do trust them, but rather you just weren’t confident in your own ability to bring up/address the situation, not their ability to respond appropriately (assuming that’s true).

  9. MR*

    I have never been in a work environment where if the boss was bad, people didn’t comment a lot about that boss.

    While I agree that it’s difficult to take the high road in those situations, if you have any kind of positive relationship with your peers, it’s almost impossible to get sucked into those conversations.

  10. anon for this*

    I recently found out I lost my boss’s trust. I answer directly to the owners, a husband and wife. Typically, she works with the business from day to day (though is notoriously unresponsive) and he holds a full time job. Recently he sat me down to go over things that felt like a cross between a performance review and outlining a PIP. Several items mentioned were things I knew I struggling to get accomplished but didn’t realize how high they were on the owners’ priority list, and several items were things I had *never* heard them mention, ever, and therefore had no idea there was an expectation I wasn’t meeting.

    He kept saying he didn’t expect all of these things to be resolved overnight, understood it would take time, etc. So I began addressing things that very day and within 2 weeks felt like I had make quite a lot of progress on the list of items he shared. However, at about the 2 week mark, I saw the wife (who I’m used to reporting to) and she was uncharacteristically rude to me and listed off several things I was doing wrong (things that had not been addressed in the meeting or previously).
    The more I reflected on it, the more I realized I’ve seen warning signs from her that when she is upset with someone, they can do NOTHING right, but since she’d never been upset with me before, I’d never felt the full totality of that! Now I’m in a position where everything I’m doing right is overlooked and any small slip-ups are magnified.
    I’m a big fan of accepting personal responsibility, so I feel like this is all my fault and I’m beginning to believe I’m doing everything wrong. A close friend insists on having me say out loud all the good, right things I’m doing just so I don’t lose my mind and believe I’m a horrible employee, but it can get to you. I’m not sure this is salvageable, unless another employee pisses her off and lands in the crosshairs in front of me. :) I’ve been there under 1 year so I’m not in a good position to job hunt, unfortunately!

    1. Marcy*

      What did you say when you were confronted? Did you make excuses for why you did things wrong? Even saying “I didn’t know what your priorities were” sounds like you are making excuses to a manager’s ears- they expect you to ask if you don’t know what the priorities are or are unsure of your duties. I’m not saying that is what you did at all but I know it is natural to defend yourself. I am dealing with an employee in your situation right now and it was all excuses. Not one time did he admit he wasn’t doing some of his duties and doing others incorrectly. He’s also been rude to people, which I assume you haven’t been. At any rate, go to the manager, tell him you know you have been struggling and tell him your plan to correct the problems and avoid them in the future. That will go a long way. Do the same thing with the wife. Tell her that her husband was kind enough to point out some areas where you need improvement and ask her for her feedback as well. Is there anything she would prefer for you to do differently? Then follow through on all of it. THAT will help you get the trust back. It also shows them that you are really trying and they will be more willing to work with you on it.

  11. Layla*

    I’ve worked in a place if a person spoke up, trust was lost because employee was under undermining manager’s authority. Employees could not say “I don’t know, but I will research and get back with you”. Trust was lost because employee was deemed inadequate and/or avoiding. We had to have an answer right then because “she always did when her managers asked a question”.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I’ve worked in places like that as well. They are dysfunctional and toxic. I was thrilled to be out of that environment. It’s just not worth the stress.

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