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The Basic Principles: How to be a Trustworthy Leader

Updated on June 29, 2012

What are The Basic Principles

The Basic Principles, developed by Zenger Miller, have been a guiding principle in my life since I learned them. While these are taught as principles that build trust and better relationship between a manager and their employees, I believe these can be the single most important life-changing concept you can ever learn. I’m not talking about most important “business” concept. I’m talking about concept in LIFE.

In a nutshell, here are The Basic Principles:

  1. Focus on the situation, issue, or behavior, not on the person.
  2. Maintain the self-confidence and self-esteem of others.
  3. Maintain constructive relationships.
  4. Take the initiative to make things better.
  5. Lead by example.
  6. Think beyond the moment.

To quote a phrase I’ve heard a few times in the past, Learn it, Love it, Live it.

Principle 1: Focus on the situation, issue, or behavior, not on the person

It’s in our nature to assign blame. If something happens, goes wrong, or doesn’t work, we start looking around to see whose fault it is. But what is the real problem? Does it really matter WHO did or did not do something? Really? Does it really matter who did something?

I’m sure some of us are shouting “YES! Yes, it does matter!”

No, it doesn’t.

Unless you have a time machine and can go back in tame and make that person do, or not do, whatever you need, it doesn’t matter. It’s over. It’s in the past. Gone, done, dead. You can’t go back and change it.

So what can you do? You can work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And you don’t do that by pointing fingers, playing the blame game, and using the word I’ve just been using for the past two paragraphs, “you.”

Focus on what happened and leave it at that. I’m not saying to drop everything and just give up. What we need to do is identify exactly what is wrong. Be as specific as possible about exactly what is the problem. Then we need to be able to identify WHY that is a problem. Then, we need to have a conversation with the person or persons involved and discuss exactly what happened, why it is not acceptable, and how to avoid it in the future.

Examples of the principle in use

Let’s look at a scenario to help put this in a form that makes sense. Let’s imagine that Bob was just on the phone for the past hour with his old college roommate. During that time, one of his clients came in to the office, waited for 40 minutes, became frustrated, and left in a negative mood. Let’s also assume the policy is no personal calls longer than 15 minutes. And that the employees get paid commission. The exact details don’t matter, this is just to give us a framework to build off of.

First, let’s look at a common version of this scenario. And yes, this is the wrong way to go about this.

Version 1 – Bad

“Bob, I need to talk to you. You were on the phone for an hour. You know the policy and you went 45 minutes over. That is unacceptable. You just violated the work policy. And not only that, but you had a customer here who left very angry at you. Your job is to take care of customers and if they are repeats, which she was, you take extra care of them. They are how this company makes its money and you just cost us a sale. At least a sale. With the expression on her face, I’m not sure she’ll be back, so you cost us all of her future sales and all of her referral sales .I think you need to get off the phone and find a way to either get that customer back or find a new customer to replace her. If I catch you doing this again you’re fired. Do you understand me?”

Now, before we examine that one way conversation, let’s look at the same conversation, but using the first Basic Principle (Focus on the situation, issue, or behavior, not the person).

Version 2 – Much better

“Bob, is everything ok?”


“OK. Well then, can we talk?”

“Sure, what do you need?”

“Bob, do you know how long you were on the phone just now?”

“Pretty long. I was catching up with an old friend I haven’t seen or talked to in 5 years or so. But don’t worry, it’s Monday, and Monday’s are pretty slow, so I’ll still get everything done.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but did you know we just lost a sale? Your customer from last month was just here and she waited 45 minutes and finally got frustrated and left. She didn’t look happy and I think we might have lost her business.”

“Do you want me to call her and try to get her back?”

“I think you have a good idea, but first we need to just touch base about what happened.”

“Um, ok.”

“That phone call lasted an hour. That’s a violation of our personal call policy. We want personal calls kept to a maximum of 15 minutes. And what just happened is the exact reason. If she had waited 15 minutes and then was helped, I’m sure she would have been totally happy and you would have made a sale, so you would have a nicer paycheck. Instead we have a policy violation and lost a customer, possibly even referrals or later follow up sales.”

“I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“Bob, I’m glad to hear that. These policies are in place to help us remember to place the customer first and to avoid situations like this. I think the smaller paycheck is enough of a repercussion, so let’s just try to get her back and move forward. You understand why this can’t happen in the future right?”

“Yeah, it costs me money.”

“Exactly, it costs us money and if it costs too much money, we have to take further steps. I’m sure we both would rather avoid that, so let’s just learn from this, move forward and not repeat this again. Sound good to you?”

“Yes sir. I’ll make that call now.”

Evaluating the differences

That second conversation sure was longer than the other. It might seem like it took more time and some people might think the manager wasn’t in charge. But let’s look at both conversations. In the first conversation, the manager basically ran over the employee. The employee probably has a negative view of the conversation. Instead of wanting to do better, he’s more worried about how much trouble he’s in, or maybe he’s mad about getting jumped on, or maybe he feels the manager wasn’t fair or is hostile, or any number of different reactions. But what Bob isn’t, is feeling good. The blame was placed on Bob and the entire conversation was focused on Bob. Practically every sentence started with “you.” This conversation placed Bob and the manager on opposite sides and made it a confrontation.

In the second conversation, the operative word was “we.” Bob wasn’t being talked to, he was being talked with. It was a conversation where he was an active participant and his responses were used by the manager to help create a connection between the policies, Bob’s actions, and the loss of the customer. If Bob called the customer after the first conversation, chances are, he wouldn’t be successful. He would be too negative and wound up. But after the second conversation, he would have a much better chance, because he sees the value and he knows that the manager values him and cares about his success. He’ll try harder for that manager than he would for the first one.

The first conversation was focused on the person who did the wrong action. The second conversation focused on the situation, the actions that caused it and how to avoid and prevent it in the future.

Principle 1 Summary

This principle, focusing on the situation, issue or behavior, not the person applies just as well for parents, co-workers, friends, spouses and anyone else you interact with. Don’t belittle, argue or attack the other person. Focus only on the exact issue you have a problem with and address how that affects the two of you. Focus on words like “we ”, “us ”, and “our ” while avoiding the blaming use of “you .”

Some people have come to me saying that they don’t understand how to have a conversation without saying “you .” I never said NOT to say it. I said to avoid it, and to specifically avoid the blaming use. Think of it this way, if a sentence starts with “you ,” chances are, it’s a blaming sentence. But if it comes in the middle of the sentence, its usually either a question, or simply a statement describing an action.

You were late – vs. – did something happen to you this morning?

You slammed the door. –vs. – Why did you slam the door?

Asking questions can be just as bad as direct sentences, so be careful that the questions are aimed at gaining knowledge about the situation, behavior, or the issue, not at assigning blame. Both of the questions above could be used to attack the other party. But if you are focused on the situation, you are trying to find out if something happened, and once you learn what happened, the two of you can together find a solution to avoid a repetition.

I try to keep these short, and this is just the first of 6 total principles. So I’m going to wrap this up and continue later with the rest. As I cover each one, they will get a little easier, since they build on each other. The hard part is creating the shift in our mind on how we view the world around us. This can be a very dramatic change for some people. It might be easy, or it might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But the rewards we will receive in how others view, treat and think about us will have a lasting and lifelong result.


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    • profile image

      Dr. Bigi Joseph 

      19 months ago

      Excellent explanation of Principle 1. Nowhere seen such a clear write up about it. Would like to get the remaining ones also. Pls share .

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Clark. Very clear writing on an important topic, and thanks for your well-delivered example. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.


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