The Secret to Building the Trust of the Team

When it comes to building the trust of the team, you – the leader – have a number of tools at your disposal. Leading by example is one of them, as is being honest and genuine, sharing hardships with your followers and admitting to your own mistakes. There is one behavior, however, that I wish to specifically bring to your attention today. It unfortunately eludes many leaders, even some good ones. That behavior is standing up for the people under your charge.

It sounds simple, but have you ever had an impulse to officially pass the blame to one of your followers, after they made a mistake? Did you follow up on it?

How Is Trust Really Earned?

Being a leader has its share of challenges, but so does being a regular member of the team. In the course of doing their job, your followers will make mistakes. And when they do, they will instantly worry that you will notice.

It is your reaction at this point that will ultimately determine the level of trust that your people will have in you. Will you report them to your own boss and throw them under the bus? Will you make an example of them in front of others? Or will you be a real leader and share the responsibility with them, while helping them improve?

It is your reaction at this point that will ultimately determine the level of trust that your people will have in you.

For the team member who makes a mistake, this moment of truth is all based on emotion. They are worried and anxious. Their reputations, their self-esteem and even their careers may be on the line. If you trample over those emotions and don’t resolve the situation like someone who genuinely cares, you will create a scar in the relationship with the person that may not heal for a long time. Their respect for you and their trust in you will plummet. Their motivation to work with you will disappear. I am sure you can think of people in your life who have done that to you and can recall how that made you feel.

Not All Situations Are Equal

Of course, not all mistakes are created equal. While errors happen, there are also those mistakes that are made out of neglect, lack of care, or poor performance, as well as those chronic mistakes that are often hard to correct. But here is the hard truth. In each of those cases you have a responsibility to work with the person and help them correct any mistakes and improve. You also have the responsibility to stand up for your team members when they make mistakes.

And yes, I get it. You have a boss of your own that you are accountable to. If you are already in a very high position, perhaps you are accountable to the public. In fact, self-preservation is the number one reason that leaders wash their hands off their followers’ mistakes and pass the blame directly to them. They hide their heads in the sand, to preserve their own unblemished reputations, their comfort and their own career prospects. They are in leadership positions, but they are not real leaders.

It's Not About You
Don’t be that person!

Unlike the follower who caused the problem, when a mistake happens, you need to approach it from the position of logic and not emotion. Find out exactly what happened. Understand the issue well. Ask questions. Then, if the issue is big enough to affect the environment outside your team, face your own leaders and explain to them what happened. Admit to the problem being your responsibility and explain to them that you intend to correct it.

Don’t belittle the person who caused the issue in the first place and don’t complain about them, even in closed door meetings. After all, they are part of your team. They are your responsibility. Finally, work with the follower in question to help them understand and correct the mistake.

In short, be a leader in the very sense of the word. Take an active role in building the trust of the team.

3 Steps to Building the Trust of the Team

So, here is plan for when mistakes occur. Here are your 3 action steps:

  • STEP 1: Find out what happened. Talk to the person or people who seem to have an issue and ask them not only what occurred but why it happened. Never assume that you know everything until you talk to the parties involved. Get the facts. You can even get information from bystanders and those who were not directly involved but were affected by the problem.
  • STEP 2: If the issue is large and affects the people and projects outside your team, face your own bosses and explain what happened. Don’t make excuses about how you are a victim too and how you are not responsible for anything that happened. Don’t badmouth the person who created the issue. It is here, at this very moment, that exhibiting courage and taking responsibility for things under your charge will make you a true leader. If you get reprimanded yourself, so be it. It happens. Instead, explain that you are now aware of the issue and will take the steps to correct it.

It is here, at this very moment, that exhibiting courage and taking responsibility for things under your charge will make you a true leader.

  • STEP 3: Go back to the initial person and ensure that they understand what happened. It may be a long conversation, or just a second or two to check if they are aware. Then, work on a solution to help the person correct the problem. Again, the solution will differ according to the magnitude of the issue. If a mistake was truly an error, don’t make a bigger deal out of it than it really needs to be. We all make mistakes.

Standing up for your followers this way – even at the cost to your own comfort – is what true leadership is about. What’s more, it is acts like these that will have a profound impact on building the trust of a team. A boss who doesn’t hide their head in the sand and who stands up for their employees is worth their weight in gold.

After the emotional anxiety of having made a mistake but being rescued and supported by their leader, your team members will see you in a completely different light. They will know that they can depend on you and that if they happen to fail again, they will not be alone. They will relax and do a better job. And their respect for you will raise. And with that – their trust.

Now, you may say, “yes, but how do I deal with a person who constantly makes the same mistake?“, or “I have people who routinely screw up, never change, and I need to constantly cover for them!“. If that’s the case, then what you need to do right now is read this.

Start standing up for your followers and watch their trust and respect grow!

Greg Bobkiewicz
Gregory Bobkiewicz is a leadership instructor and coach in the Canadian Armed Forces and the head honcho of Online Leadership Network. His military career has taken him all over the world and exposed him to many leadership challenges in demanding circumstances. He shares his passion for leadership with all new and aspiring leaders.


  1. I hadn’t zoomed in to this but you’re right when you say that our reaction when a team member makes a mistake is all important. We should always enter in with a disposition of sharing responsibility and in these moments, contrary to falling upon the person, treat him with kindness considering oneself. 

  2. Leading by example is the true way you will get the respect and admiration of people following you as a leader. Too many times a leader will pass the buck in order to avoid taking responsibility themselves. True leaders will automatically protect their following at any cost even if they have to take some or all of the blame themselves. A leader that is unselfish and stands up for others is a person that is more than likely to succeed than others.

    • Exactly. I like your last sentence. I honestly believe that in addition to living the privileged lifestyle, many leaders who don’t stand up for their followers are simply not willing to muster the courage to do so.


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