Should you trust your boss?

Should you trust your boss?   That’s a big question, and you might be surprised by my answer – “No, you shouldn’t trust your boss.”  Let me explain.  The problem exists in how we define “trust.”  Too often, we define “trusting our boss” in a way that places unrealistic expectations on him / her.  We expect our boss to be competent, ethical and moral in his or her behaviors – not an unrealistic request.  But we don’t stop there.  In addition, we usually expect our boss to be thinking about our interests and putting us “first” (or close to it) when they make decisions that may affect us.  That’s where the wheels of our logic begin to come off.  Bosses, just like the rest of us, are going to make decisions based on what’s important to him and her.  This begs a good question: “what is important to your boss?”  If we were to look inside your boss’ head, here is the list of priorities that we would likely find:

The Priorities Inside Your Boss’ Head (In Order):

  1. Themselves – Research on power has shown that when people are given power, they have a strong tendency to elevate their own needs and interests above those of others.  Frightening, huh?  But a reality.  Your boss is likely prioritizing his or her needs above everyone else’s on the team.  This category also includes your boss’ family and personal responsibilities.  Junior’s soccer game is likely going to come before your request to celebrate your anniversary with your spouse.
  2.  Their Reputation – Protecting one’s organizational reputation is a high priority for anyone – particularly for bosses that have become ever more active in the politics of the office.  Your boss is going to be more prone to protect his or her “rep” than to protect yours.
  3.  Their Boss – It is human nature to try to please our boss.  We learn it early on when we desperately work to please our own parents.  This basic human drive is not only rooted in meeting emotional and self worth needs but it is also based on the realization we all arrive at that whoever holds the purse strings will ultimately determine if we can get that candy bar in the check-out line… or that raise at work.  Your boss is likely to prioritize his or her boss’ needs / expectations over yours for this reason.  An obvious reality that hits home when we see it in print.
  4.  Their Customers – However your boss defines his / her customers, I promise you that they likely will prioritize their customers’ needs over yours.  After all, one of a boss’ biggest responsibilities is to manage workflow and make decisions in order to meet customer needs and expectations.  This is true regardless of the kind of organization in which you and your boss live (Ex: non-profits, for-profit companies, religious organizations, government entities, colleges / universities, etc…).  We all have customers that we serve.  Your boss knows that and prioritizes accordingly.
  5.  YOU… well, after the team that is – And finally we come to the team… and you.  Yes, your boss knows that he/she needs to manage his or her team well and care for the team if they are to achieve the above objectives well.  And yes, your boss understands keeping the team happy, motivated and engaged is important – at least they might have read that somewhere once.  But, as you can see, it is not “top of the list.”

Here’s the takeaway from this exercise, your boss has a lot of priorities on his / her list that rank higher than you.  Where we go wrong is that we want to trust our boss so fully that we put him / her high up on our priority list (see #3 above) and expect reciprocity… if not more.  We want to be #1 on their list (or at least close) and then we proceed to punish our boss when we aren’t.  Unfortunately, that version of mutual trust just isn’t going to happen, at least in most cases.  If your boss has to choose between you and any of the items above you on the preceding list, the reality is that they will NOT choose you.

So, where do we go with this?  Simply put, don’t trust your boss with everything.  As a good colleague told me, “It is my responsibility to own my career, not my boss’.  And frankly, I wouldn’t want them to.”  Your career, your personal / professional growth and your personal life / personal responsibilities are yours and only yours to own and manage.  You are the only one you should trust in those domains.  Where you should be able to trust your boss is in the domain of daily work.  It is reasonable to expect and trust that your boss does what he/she says they are going to do.  It is also reasonable to expect and trust your boss to not be a hindrance to your ability to get your daily work done.  Think of the physician’s Hippocratic Oath of “first, do no harm.”  At minimum, your boss should be operating on that level with you as well as with everyone else on your team.

So, in a nutshell, trust your boss based on this limited definition, and remember not to “give away the farm” and expect too much.

Next week, I’ll address the very legitimate ways bosses lose our trust and some of the warning signs that your boss may have crossed the line.  Stay tuned!

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6 replies
  1. Brandon Smith says:

    No Dave. Definitely NOT a moron. Just rare and not political. The only risk for you is if you sit inside a very political organization. You may get hurt for having the right heart and mindset. Bottom line: Don’t change who you are! You just might have to change employers if its not working.

  2. Dave says:

    You’re right, I have no patience for politics. The values of my company don’t either. And 98% of the people in my company take those values to heart. My boss is one of the very few outliers who doesn’t, but he’s just 2 positions below CEO. I love my company, hate my boss.

    I’ve taken over a 35% cut in pay in the last 5 years on top of a move to a higher cost of living location, and have been looking (unsuccessfully) for a job for the last 4. I’d like to know what my “exit strategy” should be.

  3. Kevin Combs says:

    Great list, Brandon. My father has been trying to impart similar wisdom upon me for years, and I didn’t always listen. Honestly, I’ve seen these traits in myself on occasion and that can bite you in an employee survey situation. Bosses must also make sure to keep a reasonable balance and not get too focused on their own interests.

  4. ChrisH says:

    Isn’t this at odds with the typical corporate mantra of bosses supposedly investing in employee’s development to help them grow and be successful? That seems like it would be pretty hard to do if as a individual you are 7th on the list of your boss’s perpetual priorities. And yet the squeaky wheels, corporate politicians and underachievers always get more time, energy, priority and resources from the boss. How is that not considered bad management?

  5. Brandon Smith says:

    I agree with your observation. Yes, this is at odds with the corporate mantra. However, I’m a bit of a cynic. From my cynical seat on the corporate bus, the good boss is a rare find, like a white rhino or some other “endangered species.” And “bad management,” as you noted, is the norm. So, yes, ideally an employee is much higher up on a boss’ priority list but the reality is closer to 7th. Not very idealistic, I know.

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