Why Won't People Work Harder? - Try This

Trust or Bust

The frustrations of being a leader are many. How do I get people to do what I want? Why won’t people just work harder? What can I do to make people care about what they do? How do I guide this company to a better future?  How do I stop infighting between people or departments? And the list goes on and on. As a leader, you just want to come to work and get the job done. But it seems there are too many “people” problems to deal with that cause distractions.

Well, you can’t expect to be a leader without having people around. The purpose of being a leader is to influence people in some direction, to guide them towards something better. Along the way a bunch of stuff has to get done – phone calls, paperwork, reports, sales, etc. It seems like it should be rather straightforward. I mean, how hard could it be to come to work and tell people what to do, then wait for the flawless results to appear exactly as you envisioned them in your brilliant mind. All you need to do is speak the words and everything will happen without mistakes, delays, or problems. Or, not.

Although nothing about leadership (or life for that matter) is easy there is one thing that can get you pretty close to a world with less mistakes, delays, and problems – trust. If I were to pick just one area to cultivate first in a leader at any level in any size company it would be trust. Trust is such an essential part of being a leader and running a business that I am tempted to call it magic fairy dust.

In reality, there is nothing magic about it. It is based on understanding some basic human principles. First, humans are a product of their relationships with other humans. Second, how others treat us greatly determines (wrong or right) how we respond to others. Third, how we respond is a reflection of our emotional state of mind. Finally, we may or may not be able to control our emotional state of mind. When trust is present, however, we have a sense of comfort which frees us from unwanted emotions and clouded emotional states of mind.

How is this possible? How can such a simple virtue such as trust solve so many problems? Think about a time when you completely trusted someone in your life. Maybe you told them something very personal, or maybe you trusted them to care for something very important to you like a pet or even your kids. Did you constantly worry about what you told this person or worry about how they were caring for your loved one? With regards to caring for a loved one, you might have worried about them, but you did not likely worry about the person you entrusted and the decisions they were making. You most likely thought that if something happened the person would do the right thing and make the best decision possible. Your emotions were in check. You didn’t have anxiety worrying. You were able to concentrate on other things without being distracted.

Now think of a time when you did not trust someone. It is unlikely that you would have shared anything personal with someone you didn’t trust. And you certainly would not have allowed someone to care for your loved ones whom you didn’t trust. If you did, what do you think your emotional state would be? Unless you were a completely unfeeling person, you would be constantly in a state of anxiety or worry, unable to concentrate. This is what happens in business when trust is absent. If you are the boss and you don’t trust someone then you constantly follow up to see if the person is doing the right thing. The employee feels you do not trust them, or at a minimum thinks you are a micromanager. Either way, the overbearing behavior creates a stressful untrusting environment.

Building trust also means making it safe for people to speak openly. After all you want to know, more like need to know, when there are problems.  But if, as a leader, you tell people you expect to be told when something goes wrong, and then when they do they are yelled at, ridiculed, or embarrassed, what do you think will happen the next time something goes wrong? You lost the trust that allowed the bad news to flow to you so people will hide their mistakes to avoid punishment. Now you will not hear about negative things in your business until the problems become so big they threaten your entire company. This happens when co-workers or departments don’t trust each other. Information is not shared, problems proliferate, and conflicts arise. Then, instead to coming to work and just getting your work done, you find yourself in a quagmire of people problems.

The problem is that most bosses focus too much attention on the people instead of the process when dealing with “people problems.”  Most of the time people problems are really just process problems.  As the leader you are responsible for the processes under your control, and people make the processes go around. But to stop the madness of people problems, you need to gain the trust of everyone that you work with and that works for you so that there is a free flow of information unencumbered by possible punishment. And people have to feel that you are someone who keeps their word and you do what you say you will do. This builds credibility, which in turn builds trust.

Hopefully by now you can see that when trust is absent or reduced you do not have an accurate view of reality because people do not share information or speak up when they should. Without an accurate view of reality, how can any boss expect to lead effectively? Once again, leading is about relationships. Relationships are about interacting with people. If you interact with people based on trust, then you will have a much more accurate view of reality, which in turn allows you to make more informed and better decisions. Finally, if you don’t trust someone they will not trust you. If you give trust to someone, they will give trust back to you. If trust is lacking in your organization, then it’s time to start trusting.

Most people when asked, consistently list these attributes as minimum expectations of a leader in order for trust to exist.

Credible – Doing what they say they will do.

Competent – Being good at what they do.

Knowledgeable – Being an expert at what they do.

Honest – Being open and transparent.

Caring – Having concern for the well-being of others.

Principled – Doing what is right for mutual benefit. Not selfishness.


Building trust starts with improving these attributes. Each of these attributes are actionable skills that can be learned, practiced and applied.