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  • Writer's pictureWSL Leadership

Are You Confusing Benign Acceptance of Garbage for Trust?

A wise friend once said, “Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal.” This sentiment got me thinking about how we sometimes give leaders far too much leeway in their behavior.

Acceptance of draconian leadership styles and the culture they create is indeed waning. I recently heard from another friend who told me about an organization where 80% of the workforce left due to changing policies. Those new policies were generally a good idea and centered employee wellbeing, but most teammates hit the road.

I’m so curious about how that new policy was created and delivered to result in such a dismal teammate response. Was the new policy delivered with brutal honesty? “My way or the highway.”

This disconnect between the leadership and employees exposes a vast (in this case, insurmountable) gap in emotional intelligence.

I suspect those leaders who brought out the new policy felt like they were trusted. The reality was that the team was benignly accepting the leaders’ garbage behavior - until they weren’t.

We recoil when we hear about organizations that operate on a “use-em and lose-em” model where they plan for employees to quit after 2-years. We feel conflicted because a part of our historical, cultural consciousness says an employee should be able to stay with a single organization for their career and be happy with that arrangement. The reality is that entry-level work is not sustainable for most people, and employees are moving to new organizations with increasing speed and regularity.

The deeper reality is that leaders who don’t connect with and stand up for their team are still somehow surprised when their team does not have their back.

So what is a leader to do? How can a leader tell if they are trusted or if their garbage behavior is benignly accepted?

There are plenty of articles about getting good, actionable feedback from your team (NB: if you’re doing 360-degree feedback once a year, you’re doing it wrong).

I encourage leaders to start with an open-minded look at their team/organizational culture. How would your teammates rate their fulfillment, motivation, psychological safety, respect for each other, empowerment, communication tone, etc.? Are you happy? Is the leadership respected? Your organization's culture is a reflection (and amplification) of your leadership.

If you don’t have time for this line of inquiry, your days of leadership are numbered.

Instead of relying on the idea that “my team loves me and forgives me for my ‘quirks;” (or my directness or my single-minded focus on attaining goals), take some time to understand how your teammates feel.

Leadership based on understanding expresses your emotional intelligence in a way that resonates with your teammates resulting in more buy-in, less turnover, more creativity/productivity and, for you, a leadership legacy of doing good.

Build strong, trusting relationships using your emotional intelligence. Start by examining your team culture and seeking an honest understanding of how your teammates feel. Don’t confuse benign acceptance of your garbage behavior with trust.


Emotionally intelligent conflict management is good leadership. Learn how with this checklist.

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