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Losing Your Manager’s Trust and How to Rebuild It

Jemmima Knight

Engineering Manager at Sanity

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Problem

"I was moved into a team with a mandate that I try to change the way that the team was working because as a whole they were getting a lot of internal negative press from the company. The team itself had been together for a while with few new people onboarded. Thus, I was brought in to give not only the team, but the manager as well, a little bit of fresh perspective. When I arrived, what I found was that the people who were important to me were full of enthusiasm and spirited by this fresh perspective. They didn't need any convincing. I suggested changing the strategic planning processes as well as the tactical execution of work processes and they were all on board. This included the manager, at first. He started off really keen on my ideas but then became much more harder to convince. But why?"

Actions taken

"In the beginning the manager was super keen about my ideas, but I made the mistake of taking that enthusiasm as being really open to the change of processes. I was emboldened by his initial agreement and subsequently started making lots of changes, as well as being vocal and honest about my thoughts on the underlying causes to the problems that they were facing. One of these problems was the fact that the team had been driven to the mentality of working strict hours between 9 to 5. Everyone was punctual in the morning and left the building promptly at 5pm. This set off alarm bells in my head about the manager. I thought, why do people feel like they need to work these hours? Why are they so strict about it? Does the manager watch the clock? Due to the fact that the team felt like they had to work these hours, it led me to believe that the manager was micromanaging his team too much. To me, it seemed obvious that that would be the only reason why people would be uncompromising with their hours. Why else would they be so stern about them? When I proposed this reason to the manager, it put him on guard. I came in and pointed to the only obvious reason that I knew of and stated that we should address it and stop micromanaging them. He thought I had gotten it completely wrong - which I had - and I ended up putting his back up against a wall. He closed off after that and it was hard for me to reach him with my suggestions. I decided to go back to square one. I did loads of one-on-ones and general chit chats with individuals. I looked back at previous projects and asked employees to have an informal retro with me so that I could try and understand the root cause. Eventually, what I discovered was that everyone had the same story about working late. With everyone's input, I gradually started building a picture that led me to the real source of the problem. Once I had the definitive answer, I needed to find out from the manager why this had been happening. I also wanted to take the opportunity to repair our relationship and rebuild my trust with him. I did this by having a lot of one-on-ones with him, where I asked him questions about the past and I let him give his point of view and, basically, vent. I let him talk, a lot, and I listened so that I understood his point of view. I sympathized with his situations and told him I didn't think I could have done it any better than he did. I created a space where he felt that it was safe to say where he thought he got something wrong. I would call it informational gathering although I demonstrated a lot of empathy to him so that he could trust me again and be a little bit more open. While it did take a lot of time, a few weeks or so, it had a huge impact on our relationship."

Lessons learned

  • "I have learned from my mistake and now when I go into a new situation I am a lot more wary of jumping to conclusions and making assumptions. This has had a positive impact on all of my work relationships."
  • "This experience of managing upwards to the manager, and getting him back to a point where he could talk more strategically and rationally about how we were going to change the team processes has actually helped me. I am more sympathetic now in situations where someone says something which initially gets my back up. I feel like if someone came into my team and acted the way that I did to the manager, I now have the skills to deal with it in a better manner than this manager. Now, if someone comes at me my immediate response is to not have an emotional reaction until I can really understand where the person is coming from and what exactly they are trying to do."
  • "Due to this crash course in how to rebuild trust with a manager, I think my direct reports now find it a lot harder to lose my trust. This is because I am a lot slower to react if I think someone is being unfair towards me or attacking me in some way. I am a lot less likely to take it that way and instead try to understand what they are trying to tell me and get to to a point where we are speaking about the same thing."

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Jemmima Knight

Engineering Manager at Sanity


Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingEngineering ManagementFeedback TechniquesIndividual Contributor RolesLeadership RolesTeam & Project ManagementDiversity & Inclusion

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