I’ve been thinking about trust recently after hearing two heartbreaking leadership stories:
If I Trust You, You’ll Cheat Me
In the first, the head of an organization’s branch sent out a message through his managers: no remote work during the holidays, even though the facility itself was essentially closed. As this message was shared, you could feel the deflation in morale across the entire branch. Staff correctly interpreted this rule as a vote of no confidence. You’re all cheaters and I don’t trust you to get anything done. You’re just going to take vacation days and not document them. I don’t trust you unless I can see you are working. Making the situation worse, the message was phrased in a way that implied it was a worldwide rule. When word got out that other facilities were shutting down for the holidays or giving days off, it destroyed staff morale and exposed this leader’s lack of trust.
If I Trust You, I’ll Fail
In the second, a leader under pressure from her bosses turned her frustration on her team. The team had delivered a successful program a month before, except in the leader’s mind the success was due to her taking over the program halfway through planning. In her narrative, the team had let her down, and she had saved the day. She hadn’t trusted her team to deliver, so she did “all” the work herself.
She shared her perspective in surprise conversations with each team member. One described it as an ambush. Another reminded the boss that she had never even celebrated the completion of the program by thanking the team for its hard work. The boss’ response: there was nothing to thank the team for. By getting stuck thinking of herself as the savior, she shrunk as a leader. She lost sight of the needs of her team, their talents, and their substantial work that she had simply repackaged into the final program. In situations like this, a cratering of morale isn’t the only result. They can be the trigger for the disintegration of the team itself.
When trust disappears, it can cost organizations their very lives.
Being A Leader When Trust Falters
There are schools of thought that it is the employee’s job to earn trust from the manager. It’s just the opposite. It’s the manager’s job to cultivate trust.
Noticing you’re not trusting your team? As a leader, it’s your job to fix it.
Leadership means taking responsibility for the situation. And here’s a key point many leaders forget: responsibility doesn’t mean doing everyone’s work for them. If you’re doing that, you’ve surrendered responsibility. By doing it all, you’ve relieved your team of any expectations and weighed yourself down with work that isn’t yours. The boss in our second story shared that she felt like if she didn’t do all the work, she could never ensure that there would be a positive result. I feel for the pressure she must feel, and I thirst for her to see the greater possibilities of letting go of control: the wonders of using the full talents of the team, and the incredible upside of chaotically unexpected insights.
Your work is building teams and team behavior that create results. And trust.
This is the point where some team leaders are thinking “I can’t imagine ever trusting my team.” What if you did anyway? What if there is no way to actually be a compelling leader than to trust your team when you’re not sure you can? Like our leader above, what if she set aside her perspective of “I can’t trust” and trusted her team to kick ass on the next project? What if she practiced expert management to maximize their talents? It might feel terrifying at first. There aren’t even any guarantees that the project would work out. What I know is that the team would be stronger at the end and more ready with each succeeding challenge.
Trust is always there to give, even if you don’t feel it.
Jeez, that sounds hard. Yup. Sounds that way, and with practice it can feel easier. Amateur leadership is easy and ineffective. World class leadership cares so much that embracing “impossible” challenges is the only option.
So how do we fix things when we’ve lost trust?
The solution comes down to courage and communication. It’s courageous leadership to hold back and not blame your team members for the situation. It’s courageous leadership to look deeply at the situation, be honest about your role and imagine what positive contribution you can make. And it’s courageous leadership to make that contribution.
More often than not, it’s going to be about communication designed to elevate the skills and leadership capacity of each member of the team. Diplomatic communication. Nonviolent communication. Some of your team members may not yet have the communication skills needed to thrive with you, and your challenge is to communicate anyway and support their growth. Becoming a better leader means summoning more courage and expanding your own willingness to communicate effectively, in service of trust.
And yes, sometimes it’s not going to work out. Sometimes people are not ready to contribute at the level needed by the team. Sometimes people are not ready to be trustworthy. And your team needs you to replace them, but only after you have shown tremendous leadership in owning he situation.
Trust Is Everyone’s Job
One more thing. This is for all of us on teams who are relieved by this article, that it’s the boss’ responsibility to fix things. Let’s go back to this statement from earlier: there are schools of thought that it is the employee’s job to earn trust from the manager. It’s just the opposite. It’s the manager’s job to cultivate trust.
I take that back. Leadership is the responsibility of every team member. So if you’re noticing something is off, look courageously at the issue and communicate to create the working experience you envision for the team.