If you’ve not listened to the first episode of Leadership Challenges (a narrowed-down sub-series of the Grow Great podcast), go do that first. It’s on safety and the importance of establishing that before you can grow into a more effective, impactful leader.
Today’s subject is trust. Safety is first because if our people don’t feel safe with us, then we’ll never get them to trust us. The short command, “Trust me” won’t work. It’s not just a trite sales cliche, it’s baloney. It screams, “Whatever you do, DO NOT TRUST ME.”
Leadership is about relationships. This isn’t about styles of leadership. Those vary, just as much as personalities. Whether you roll like General Patton or Tony Dungy, your leadership hinges on being able to establish healthy relationships. There is a burden of leadership that requires you to show people the way. Forging the relationship is first your responsibility. Yes, all parties have to comply – to some degree. But somebody has to make the first move. That’s YOU.
And Houston, we have our problem. Too often leaders complain that so-and-so isn’t putting in the effort. They’ll complain how some team member isn’t cooperative enough, or reliable enough, or something else. If I had a buck for every time a leader or business complained about an employee who wasn’t proactive enough I’d be off lounging at a beach somewhere full-time. “I wish they’d show more initiative,” says the CEO. Well, duh. Yes, we want people to handle things, including relationships at work, in a more proactive, less reactive way. Unfortunately, when you hang around the place long enough you realize the top leader is often not demonstrating a proactive approach to building the relationship.
This was driven home not long ago when a top leader complained to me about one employee who was too passive for her tastes. She wanted her team to be comprised of assertive, “go for broke” type of people. This one particular person was more reserved and she was struggling to deal with it. Within minutes she was complaining about another employee who had overstepped her bounds. This mid-level manager had inserted himself in a meeting that the CEO felt was inappropriate. I had heard these kinds of conflicting stories before from this leader. She was hard charging, demanding and had lots of things going for her. Like all of us, she had simply gotten a bit blind-sided with her how frustrations. I knew how she felt ’cause every CEO suffers it every now and again. My job was to help her through her frustrations to find solutions that would help her grow as a leader — and help her grow her people, too.
She wasn’t paying close attention to the contrasting frustrations she had just expressed. So I held up a verbal mirror and restated these frustrations back to her. She leaned back, smiled and said, “Can’t win for losing, huh?” She was referring to how some of her people likely felt. I just said, “What do you think?”
“I think I probably need to own it myself first,” she said. Breakthrough.
Sadly, not enough leaders are as open-minded to accept responsibility to show their people the way. This leader had a strength – a humility and courage – to accept the responsibility to establish trust with people by first learning to trust them. Over time we discussed how our view of people can impact our culture and our organization’s performance. A CEO who suspects all employees are stealing time, materials and inventory will behave very differently than a CEO convinced that people want to get up in the morning, come to work and do a good job. How we view the world – and the people who occupy our space in it – impacts many things for us.
Proverbs 18:24 says, “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly.” Ditto for trust. If you want people to trust you, you must show yourself trustworthy. And you must first trust them.
A CEO may say, “Well, that’s stupid. People have to earn trust.” I get that. Again, we’ve got world views to consider. You can approach life from a no trust zone first, or from a trust zone first. It’s the difference in innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent. You decide.
I’ve heard tons of seemingly logical reasons offered by top leaders who talk of the negatives – the downsides – of trusting people. Words like “blindly trusting” people are used, indicating weakness and stupidity. When I press a leader to give me specifics of what they think those downsides may be they often aren’t able to list anything too terribly bad. Rarely have I heard a leader name an outcome that can’t be fixed or repaired after the fact.
Now, flip the exercise on its head and reverse it. What’s the downside of NOT trusting somebody? How much time do you have to investigate the negative possibilities? On and on we can go. Those typically far outweigh the negatives of trust. Yes, trust can (and sometimes is) betrayed. Husbands and wives betray each other, too. So should we not trust our spouse? How healthy would our marriages be if we all behaved like that? Same thing for our relationships at work.
The leader’s challenge is to first demonstrate trust in order to gain or facilitate trust. Show people the way. Behave your way to what you want. Yes, far easier said than done!
But true nonetheless.
It’s really not that hard — until people disappoint us. That disappointment can come when the person doesn’t do something we think they should have done, when they do something we don’t think they should have, or whenever we disagree or don’t fully approve of whatever choice or behavior they made. In short, when people do something we wouldn’t have done ourselves, or when people don’t do it the way we’d have done it — then our trust is tested. Sometimes it’s beyond tested. Sometimes, it’s broken completely. And some CEO’s have a really tough time forgiving people and letting people out of the doghouse. That won’t make things better.
Do you trust your wife? Sure you do, unless she’s given your reason not to.
Has your wife ever disappointed you by doing something you thought was stupid, or something you think you’d have never done? Probably.
Is she still in your doghouse because of it? Boy, I hope not. If so, your marriage is broken. And if I asked your wife the same questions she’s likely give me the same answers you gave. You’ve disappointed her with your acts of stupidity. But she still trusts you. Hopefully she still loves you.
We often have less harsh standards at home than at work – at least with some things. One mis-step by a team member and we may forever deem them untrustworthy. That’s it. One shot and you’re done!
If you’ve successfully raised teenagers you know how futile (and stupid) that is. Our kids learn trustworthiness because we train them, we trust them and we help them learn from their mistakes.
Guess what? It works the same way at work. As leaders, we owe it to our employees to train them, to trust them and to help them learn from their mistakes. Over time we can build stronger trust. Or we can handle it in more toxic ways and damage our people (and our relationships with them) making them less effective. How does that help us succeed as leaders? How does that grow our business?
Make your people safe. Train them. Trust them. Help them learn from their mistakes. Rinse and repeat.
Keep the faith,
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