Failing to build trust with your team? You’re probably not investing in your “whys”

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Almost every leader you talk to will quote building trust as one of the most important things for creating a highly functional team.

However, one of the most common mistakes leaders make on a weekly basis, is not providing their team with good “whys”.

When I say “why”, I am not talking about the company’s mission to transform X or make the world a better place.

“providing a why” in this context is simply frequent communications around why decisions are being made, which is at least:

1. Honest

2. Aligned with a shared value/belief which is reinforced often

Great “whys” have additional ingredients — but we’ll focus on the basic ones.

Having a “why” is critical for trust

The most straight forward way to get teams to commit to a plan or a request is to make decisions that are self-explanatory and provide a clear win for everyone.

In such a case, you don’t really need a “why” — just prepare for the standing ovations….

Unfortunately, most decisions aren’t a clear “win”, for a million reasons.

There is a management parable which goes: “if you want to make everyone like you — don’t be a manager, go sell icecream instead”

Some decisions, especially ones which appear to be directly aimed against certain employee’s interest, can seriously damage trust very quickly.

In many other cases, decisions “just” add a certain level of cognitive dissonance.

When this cognitive dissonance builds over time, it makes it hard even for the most committed employees to stay aligned with the team’s direction.

When the dissonance is experienced in employees with a highly critical character, they can also lose trust in your ability as a leader.

A good enough “why” helps reduce cognitive dissonance, replacing it with a sense of consistency and alignment on shared values, and helps people “get over” difficult decisions.

Photo by M Ashraful Alam on Unsplash

Cognitive dissonance triggers

There are a few common “families” of decisions that create cognitive dissonance and need to be addressed with a good “why”. Here are a few:

High uncertainty/high risk

The situation is “objectively” uncertain. There are a few equally risky options.

Many employees have an emotional need for clear rationale and reasoning for decisions; some of them have different opinions on what the company should do.

Decisions of this type have subtle rationale (not to call them gambles), and it will be hard for people to interpret them without a “why”.

High sensitivity decisions

There are good reasons for a decision, but they cannot be openly shared with a broad forum due to sensitive information.

Employees may feel there is a lack of transparency, or simply not understand what is happening.

Defensive decisions

Something negative happened in the environment, and now you need to take a step back and play “defence”, or cut your losses.

Your team will feel a combination of fear of the unknown, and concerns about the future of the project/company/org.

Team impact decisions

In some cases, your decisions can directly “hurt” some team members.
from demotions to simply going against their explicit preferences.

Beyond the affected parties, who clearly will be concerned with your decision, making this decision without any “why’s” or effective communication makes you look machiavellian, and may cause other team members to wonder when will be their turn to get hurt that way by you.

Zig-Zag decisions

Your team just spend the last 3 months burning the midnight oil trying to deliver something you said was supercritical for the business — but you are now having to change course and drop this direction entirely.

This pattern is very common in startups or highly dynamic environments, and carries multiple layers:

  1. Past work seems meaningless which is discouraging
  2. Fear that the new decision will also turn out to be meaningless
  3. Distrust in the leader’s ability to make good decisions
  4. In some cases, some employees who opposed the old direction will feel like they should have been listened to more carefully.
Photo by Josh Withers on Unsplash

Why do leaders fail to provide good “whys”?

At face value, providing your team with honest, consistent explanations to your decisions seems like the least you could do, right?

After all, it doesn’t require a magnetic charisma, a personal rapport or connection with each and every team member, or an incredibly developed emotional intelligence, and yet — many leaders fail to do this regularly.

In most of the organizations I’ve encountered, there are at least periods where the cognitive dissonance is rising and the leaders are not handling it well, or at all for that matter.

Some (inexperienced) leaders think teams should “do as they say”

Not much to say about this reason, but it’s common enough in small teams.

Startup mentality which doesn’t scale

Many startups start with such extreme uncertainty and a very close-knit team. The core team and especially founders clearly expect there to be many “surprises”, and more or less “accept it as part of the game”.

However, as the team grows:

  1. The expectation is that the startup will stabilize
  2. Newcomers who are not part of the early core don't share the same expectations or mentality and need more coherence

If Founders/leaders fail to adapt, this can lead to increased dissonance.

Getting too used to uncertainty and expecting others to do so too

Some leaders get used to a high level of uncertainty and take pride in how they deal with it.

Sometimes, they place such importance on this factor, that they expect their own team to "deal with the uncertainty like I do".

This is not a fair expectation for many reasons, including the differences in context, experience and pay level….

Being unsure of the “why” themselves

This, I believe, is the biggest driver for why experienced leaders fail to regularly provide good “why’s”.

Perhaps it’s that they don’t deeply feel in agreement with their own managers, or perhaps just feel like they are ‘playing the hand they were dealt.

Of course, this prevents them from providing a good ‘why’ to their teams.

Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

Don’t do these things

  • Some leaders just avoid the communication and try to “smooth over” decisions. This is very understandable as an avoidance tactic since it really is uncomfortable to not have a good “why”.
  • Others, who feel like they must provide a why but are not deeply aligned with it, may attempt to provide a “fake why”, which the team will likely sense.
  • Others attempt to cover up their team’s need for “why” with assertiveness which prevents questions being asked at the moment but solves nothing.

These, of course, are not good strategies and will definitely not address the issue at hand.

Do these things

So what to do in order to provide better “why’s”?

  • Think ahead and recognize decisions that will create significant cognitive dissonance, and prepare for communicating them. Don’t rush to “put them behind you” — stay with the difficulty!
  • Spend the time and effort to try and clarify your own “why’s”.
    Make sure you discuss them with your own manager and even peers you trust.
  • If you’re faced with a tough situation, try and fall back on principles and values which you do believe in, and frame the decision in terms of these principles.
    For example, if you feel aligned with the need for continuous improvement, and the decision involved a (painful) learning — emphasize this aspect of the decision’s benefit i.e. the learning opportunity.

It’s very important to maintain consistency — if you present a “why” based on a shared value, like learning or improvement, you need to make sure your actions will be consistent with the value, post the communication.

For example, implement changes that reflect the learning quickly and publicly.


Having a good sense of “why” — and a reduced level of cognitive dissonance is important for everyone — it’s important for your team and it’s important for you as a leader.

Spend the time and make the effort to provide at least honest and consistent “why’s” to your team, especially in hard decisions where the “why” is not obvious or easy to communicate.

And if you as a leader find yourself in a cognitive dissonance too much of the time, remember that this is hurting both you and your team long term.
If it’s really bad, you should probably consider moving positions.

Machine Learning and Engineering Leader and consultant.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store