This One Mistake Can Ruin A Boss’s Credibility

BY Kathy Crosett
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It takes a long time for leaders to build trust and credibility with their employees. Just a few minutes of bad behavior on your part can completely destroy what you’ve worked so hard to earn. Robert I. Sutton, a professor of management science engineering at Stanford University, has studied this problem. He says there’s one big mistake that bosses should promise themselves they’ll never make.

Your younger employees are looking for meaning in the work they do every day. They attach meaning to the range of skills they use and the ability to see their work product from beginning to end. They want to take pride in accomplishing tasks. Your employees also want ownership of their tasks. And, if they make suggestions or recommendations, they hope you are listening.


This last area can be tricky for managers. In his research, Sutton has found that managers sometimes deliberately mislead their employees. For example, you might go through the effort of holding a meeting to solicit their opinions about a proposed merger. Asking for input on an important decision empowers employees. They feel valued and important. It’s quite an ego boost to know the boss wants advice from the underlings. 

Trouble is, if you’re asking for input after you’ve already made the big decision, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Sooner or later, your employees will find out what you did. They’ll likely conclude that you were trying to earn their trust through ‘sham participation.’ They’ll wonder why you lied to them. And they'll wonder why they should ever believe you again.

You might have all kinds of reasons for telling little white lies. Maybe you want your employees to believe you value their opinions. Or, you could be trying to influence them to be on your side when another big decision, possibly involving your future, comes up. These situations don’t give you a green light to deceive your team members.

How to Tell the Truth

Not every organization is set up to allow for group decision-​making, especially in times of duress. The best strategy in this case is to give your employees as much autonomy as you can over their work process. And, explain that the company policy dictates that some decisions are made by key individuals. The conversations are hard. But, you owe your employees the truth.

Over time, you can try to change policies you disagree with. But, until you do, don’t demotivate employees or make them question their trust in you by lying.