Time to Start Working on Trust

Posted on 04 September 2020

How to renew yourself as a leader (Part 2)

Many leaders—I’m tempted to write ‘most leaders’—don’t trust those who work for them to do what they’re paid to do and do it properly. The continual primacy of command-and-control methods of leadership proves this.

There’s a whole management mythology out there to support the idea that people are basically lazy and feckless. If you aren’t on top of them the whole time, they’ll slack off and try to avoid working. That’s in addition to the ego-centric belief many leaders have that nobody can do anything as well as them, let alone better; and all the anal-obsessive bosses out there who think ‘leadership’ and ‘micro-management’ are the same thing.

Trust, in today’s workplaces, is more of an endangered species than any giant panda or rare, South American frog. No one amongst the great and mighty, it seems, is even remotely interested in its survival.

What happens when, as a leader, you don’t trust your people?

For a start, they don’t trust you. People know instinctively that you think they’re untrustworthy idiots and they repay the compliment. They naturally feel belittled and unmotivated. Why try, when you’ve already made it clear that you know they aren’t capable of doing a good job?

Worse still, they won’t tell you anything, in case you use it to make them out to be fools or turn it against them in some way. You’ve given them the perfect excuse for anything that goes wrong: they were simply following orders—your orders. You’ve also made it certain they won’t warn you of any nasty surprises before they land on you.

If you don’t trust others, you also won’t be willing to let go of trying to do everything yourself. This shows itself in everything from micro-managing, to doing everything yourself, to laying down fixed rules and procedures for every eventuality, to overworked and eventual burnout. If some bosses work that much harder than anyone else, they’ve only got their own poor leadership to blame. The result is a downward spiral of greater mistrust, worse communication and mutual finger-pointing.

What’s the worst that could happen if you did trust them?

They could make a mistake that might be costly or reflect badly on you. You can minimize the likelihood of this happening by the way you train and coach them. You can also grant trust in a gradual way, relating it to their experience and knowledge and their past record in handing situations well on their own.

They could ‘go it alone’ and get into trouble. Of course, if they trust you (because you trust them), they’ll likely tell you right away if something is going wrong. You should also make it clear that you aren’t going to crucify them for making a mistake. Treat it as a learning opportunity for you both: for them in what they did wrong and how to avoid it next time; for you in establishing sensible ‘disaster recovery’ systems to cope better when mistakes are made. You make mistakes too, so don’t kid yourself that you would never have done anything as silly as they did.

What’s the best that could happen?

They’ll produce better answers and stronger results than you would have done in their place. That will reflect well on you,as their leader, and boost your own results, so who’s complaining?

They’ll come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of. No one is going to risk being creative in a command-and-control environment. If it goes wrong, they’ll be laughed at and blamed. If the idea is a good one, the boss will steal it and claim it’s his or her own.

They’ll save your ass when you foul up. I guess you’d want them to do that, wouldn’t you? It’s amazing how far people will go to protect the boss from mistakes and criticism if they like and respect him or her.

They’ll be able to get on with what they do with minimum input from you, thus greatly lessening your workload as well as theirs. Is that a bad thing? I doubt it, but maybe the macho, command-and-control leaders think it might be—maybe because they’re afraid it will reveal how little the organization actually needs what they have to offer.

The nasty truth bosses don’t want to face

To be honest, probably the most powerful reason why some bosses don’t want to allow their people the freedom to show what they can do is that they’re afraid: afraid that their subordinates will turn out to be more able than they are and so show them up as over-promoted and unnecessary. They’re also afraid that, if their people can get on nicely without them for most of the time, the organization will judge their job to needless and give them a pink slip.

If this is you—even if it’s only the case in your darkest moments—stop and consider this. If you’re that uncertain about your own abilities, the person you need to work on is yourself. Holding others down won’t make you any better. One day, someone is going to evade your restrictions and break out, revealing what you did. That’s going to wreck your credibility, regardless of how able you truly are. Lack of self-confidence is curable, once you recognize the problem.

Who needs mediocre leaders?

If your job is merely to watch others do the work, interfering on a regular basis, you haven’t got a real job anyway and you’re already terribly vulnerable. Free up your time to show what extra value you can contribute, over and above what your team provides. That’s the only way to prove the organization needs you. No one is more likely to be fired to save costs than a mere supervisor.

On the other hand, people who develop and motivate successful teams—and also add value in their own right—are worth their weight in gold. This process starts with trust. It starts with you. Your people can’t earn your trust unless you give them some to start with. Only then can they show you that your gift wasn’t misplaced.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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14 Comments For This Post

  1. sambit says:

    This is spot on. But what to do? You can hardly reform your boss and expecting them to evolve does not work. This is specially true in these times of rapid technological changes when the boss knows that he is not half as good as the newest entrant because of his education and ability to grasp the changes in technology. If he has put his money into the company may be he will be more accepting but if he is using others money as is the case mostly, he will do his best to cover these guys with meaningless work so that their shine does not show. The new ones do not have high alternative value due to their lack of experience and continue to plod on. What an wastage on both fronts ?

  2. CK says:

    Leaders must be able to make the first move towards trusting their people. That is why they are called LEADERS!

  3. Frode H says:

    I read this blog on a regular basis. And I agree with a huge lot of what I read. What I suddenly start to wonder about; do all these great leaders just spend time writing blogs? They are hard to spot around the office. I believe in a lot of what I read about but always find myself hoping that I had a leader that could live by a slow leadership philosophy. Trust is very important. I do trust my employees. I do not feel the need of “supervising” to make sure they do a great job. The results are not better if I am running around the floor. I have an office that I can spend all day, leaving them alone. Or I can be out there checking if they produce the same result. Since the results are pretty much the same, I am wasting my time if I am running around making sure that everybody does their work. The results are the same, but no one will get my job done this way. Well I love to talk to them, and serve coffee if they need it. Making some sense to the surveillance, that is expected of me. I’ll rather walk around the office to talk to them, to make sure they know I care, than walk around to check if they work.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    @sambit: Trust always has to start somewhere, Sambit. Why not with you? Mostly we can’t alter the other person, however much we would like to do so, but we can always change ourselves.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  5. Carmine Coyote says:

    @CK: I agree, CK. Maybe a few more will try, provided we keep reminding them. Keep reading, my friend.

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Frode H: Well, from what you say, Frode, at least one good leader is out there — you. As for the others, who knows? I suspect there are more than we imagine. They just don’t make so much fuss or draw as much attention to themselves as the bad ones. Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Mary Jo Asmus says:

    Carmine, nicely put. I really like the model.

    I am an executive coach who works with leaders who may be in a spot of needing to learn to trust more. I can often get their attention by helping them to understand that by micromanaging, they are working too hard. They will eventually wear themselves down, with unfortunate consequences to their health and well-being. Sometimes, when a leader grasps a selfish reason for behavioral change, it’s easier to accept.

    Yes, there are good leaders out there! I have a favorite client who understands the importance of trust and the fact that he can’t possibly “do it all”. He’s very successful and has had a long and distinguished career. He says “I find I have so much more control when I let go.” An awkward way of putting it, but certainly it’s been my experience that when leaders can “let go” by trusting others, the work gets done, and often more collaboratively and creatively than when the leader continually interferes.

  8. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Mary Jo Asmus: Thanks for your comment, Mary Jo. The example you give is a good one and it should reassure people to know that there are good leaders out there who have ‘got it’ and can be trusted. Keep reading, my friend.

  9. Wally Bock says:

    While I agree with most of the points you’ve made, I disagree with the idea that trust is a global switch which is either on or off. In my experience trust is both personal and situational and moves along a continuum.

    If I’m a leader, I have to make judgments about where an individual team member can do a particular job (ability) and will do it without prodding and follow-up (willingness). In most teams, most of the time, we have a bunch of individuals with a mix of ability and willingness for a variety of tasks.

    As long as I’m cruising along here, let me take on the term “micromanagement.” I think it gives the idea that digging into the details of how to do work of a team member is always a bad choice. It’s not. Sometimes it’s the most effective choice. I prefer the term “over-management” to the situations where the detailed management is counter-productive.

  10. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Wally Bock: Thanks for your comment, Wally. I’ll try not to get into petty semantics here, because I think we’re in almost complete agreement, but I do want to pursue two points in what you have said.

    I don’t believe I ever suggested trust is some kind of either/or, on-off ’switch’. I believe all that I said is that it has to start somewhere, otherwise people stand around waiting for the other person to ‘earn’ their trust, yet fail to trust them with anything that could provide the basis for the proof they’re waiting for. You don’t have to start with the level of trust that includes your life: just giving someone something useful and appropriate to do — and letting them get on with it unsupervised — will be enough.

    On the topic of micro-management, let’s be clear that ‘digging into the detail’ isn’t itself always harmful. As with everything else, it’s the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of such an action that either conveys trust or undermines it. Micro-management, in my mind, implies delving into minutiae in circumstances where it isn’t needed, thus passing a message that you either don’t trust the team member, or think he or she is incompetent, or both. If the attention to detail is needed, it’s simply management. Call what I’m talking about over-management if you like; it’s the same thing. If people employ and supervise professionals, they should at least have the grace to treat them as such. Even helping inexperienced newbies can be done in a way that won’t undermine their dignity and self-respect.

    Keep reading, my friend. I enjoy your take on things, as you know.

  11. Wally Bock says:

    Perhaps this is one of those places where we can agree to disagree on the semantics because we agree on the key points.

  12. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Wally Bock: I’m more than happy with that, Wally.

  13. Chris Young says:

    Very nice post Carmine - I choose it as one of my top five recommended blogs posts for my readers which can be found here: http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2008/09/the-rainmaker-1.html

    Be well!

    Chris Young

  14. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Chris Young: Thanks, Chris. Glad you liked it. Keep reading, my friend.

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