Impersonating a heroin dealer taught me about trust

During my career as an undercover investigator leading covert operations I was responsible for gaining the trust of highly paranoid and suspicious criminals. The process could take months and my cover would be kept right up until the last moment. In my current role as a leadership coach and business mentor I’ve advised senior politicians, government officials and CEOs on how to build and maintain trust in order to succeed.

The character of my former targets could not be more different to the high level influencers I currently call clients. However, the time I spent living a double life among criminals taught me some crucial lessons regarding trust, which I now use to help great leaders achieve further success.

Working undercover taught me that that to be trustworthy a person needs three key qualities: competency, care and consistency.

First, they need to be good at what they do or, if they are not a competent leader, they need to ensure they are surrounded by competence. Second, they need to show care. A manager who is very good at their job, but doesn’t show compassion or empathy towards staff will still be viewed as untrustworthy. Finally, to gain trust a person must be consistent. If they are inconsistent in demonstrating competence and care it’s unlikely they will be trusted.

While during a covert operation my role was to gain trust in order to break it, in a normal workplace scenario a manager is aiming to gain trust in order to keep it. Trust is crucial for leaders to ensure their team is aligned with an organisation’s purpose, values and vision. A leader can’t operate effectively unless they authentically gain and maintain trust and respect. The alternative is leading with fear, which is ineffective.

One of the biggest contributors to loss of trust among staff in the corporate sector occurs when employees see leaders tolerating poor behaviour. If a team member is acting in an unacceptable way and a manager does not intervene, a workplace can quickly become toxic. This can leave a legacy that remains with an organisation long after the manager leaves. Staff may want to trust a newly inserted leader, due to the necessity of having a relationship with them. However, if the previous manager was deemed untrustworthy, there will be considerable reluctance in trusting the new leadership. Any leader who assumes trust is making a fatal mistake.

Tolerance of unacceptable behaviour is often a result of lack of engagement. This is the single biggest problem facing the corporate sector. In today’s world of big data and endless reports leaders spend too much time in front of computers and not enough time in front of their people. The bulk of my work as a coach involves helping leaders to be meaningfully and effectively engaged through their behaviour with staff. We often hear the term ’employee engagement’, but there can be no employee engagement without leadership engagement. The quality of leadership engagement causes the quality of employee engagement, performance, productivity and customer experience.

Therefore, my challenge to managers is to consider if they show competence, care and consistency in their leadership and reflect on how engaged they are with their team.  After considering these two points, they should ask themselves: ‘Would I trust me?’

David Deane-Spread is the founder and chief education officer of Metattude and helps leaders rectify and retain, or remove and replace people who are disengaged.

This article originally appeared at on 27 February 2015