This month we’ve tackled a dysfunction that nearly all of us have encountered at some point in our careers: “I don’t trust my boss.”  I think you would agree me that this is not a fun situation to be a part of.  Whether our boss breaks our trust because he or she is unethical, incompetent, difficult to read, or fails to protect us – once that trust is broken it is hard to regain.  So, what can we do when we don’t trust our boss?  Here’s your prescription – refill as necessary:

Your 90 Day Trust-Management Prescription

  • Keep your boss close – Ever heard the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer?”  I’m not suggesting your boss is your enemy (yet), but I am suggesting that you need to get more face time with him or her.  There are two important reasons for this: 1) it allows you to assess if you were right to not trust him or her by getting a better read on his / her intentions and 2) it prevents you from distancing yourself from your boss and acting as though you don’t trust him / her.  We tend to not trust people that don’t trust us.  Don’t make this a self-fulfilling prophesy by sending “mistrust” signals your boss’ way.  Having lunch with your boss is a good start.
  • Clarify expectations –Mistrust can come when we don’t know what is expected of us and we feel like we are constantly in a state of guessing.  This is the equivalent of going to Vegas and throwing your career on the table.  I don’t know about you, but I always come back from Vegas a loser.  Don’t bet your career.  Ask what is expected of you over the next month / quarter / year.  This can enhance trust by getting you and your boss on the same page.
  • Document everything.  If you notice your boss has the propensity to slip on promises or make sneaky dealings, make sure you are documenting EVERYTHING.  How you might ask?  Put everything in e-mail and save it all.  Confirm promotion schedules in e-mail.  Confirm salary cuts / increases in e-mail.  Even include your general recommendations for the business in e-mail.  Documenting everything serves two purposes.  First, it helps to keep your boss in line and second, it protects you in the event your boss gets caught behaving unethically and an internal investigation ensues.  You don’t want to be mistaken for crew on his or her sinking ship.
  • Determine where you stand.  In absence of communication we always assume the worst.  If you aren’t asking about your standing and if you aren’t hearing anything from your boss, you are likely to assume that you are not in a good position.  This train of thought may also lead you to begin to mistrust your boss even further.  Clear that up by proactively asking.  It will put your mind at ease because you will at least know how he / she perceives your current performance and what you can be doing more of / differently.

A Stronger Prescription – In the Event the First Round of Treatment Doesn’t Work

  • Develop an exit strategy.  As my friends in the entrepreneurial world say, “you should always have an exit strategy.”  Do you have one?  Get one.  This is particularly important if you think your boss is unethical or out to get you.    And if you do observe your boss behaving unethically, you may be putting yourself and your career at serious risk by sticking around.  Not simply because your boss could continue to hurt you by limiting your opportunities and/or stealing from you, but more importantly because you are under their reputational umbrella.  If they go down, your reputation could be stained… permanently.  You could be one of those unfortunate individuals who have Arthur Andersen or Enron on their resumes and are forever defending their reputation.
  • Gang up on your boss – I’ve seen this approach have tremendous impact on a boss.  When his or her entire team comes to him or her as one unit and says “we don’t trust you,” it is a tough message to ignore.  And frankly, no one wants to be seen as untrustworthy by their team.  A facilitator may also help you pull this off so consider that path if you want to ensure your boss hears the message.  However, I would not recommend doing this solo!  The boss could choose to shoot the messenger and you know what that means.
  • Tell on your boss – If things have gone from bad to worse and you experience things in your department escalating to dangerous levels, it may be appropriate to tell your boss’ boss or Human Resources about what is occurring.  However, use this is a last resort.  Consider this the equivalent to major surgery.  There is a chance the patient won’t survive.  That patient could be you.   Make sure you are prepared to make that gamble and you have taken all the necessary precautions (see “Document everything” above).

Finally, be honest with yourself about your mistrust of your boss.  Make sure that you aren’t labeling your boss “untrustworthy” simply because you don’t like their way of approaching their job… or more importantly, because you think you should be the one calling the shots.  That could be a dangerous step in the wrong direction… for you (see last month’s dysfunction “I thought I was a rock star until they let me go”)!

There you have it – the prescription for what you can do when you don’t trust your boss.  It will take discipline, hard work and intention.  Keep it up, be vigilant, make a concerted effort and watch your back… and your front.