Trust your team

02 March, 2020

Get past those nagging doubts and take a leap of faith in your team’s abilities

As a leader, you may have worked towards getting your team to trust you – but do you trust them? Ask yourself:

Do I trust my team members to get things done?
Do I show confidence in their abilities and judgment?
Do I rely on them to point out problems and risks?
Do I believe in their potential and facilitate their success?
Does my behaviour convey trust?

You might think of trust as a black-and-white issue: “either I trust someone or I don’t – end of story”. But that’s not exactly true. As Amy Jen Su explains in her Harvard Business Review article, Do You Really Trust Your Team? (And Do They Trust You?)leaders have an opportunity to create and cultivate trust:

[Trust] tends to be a gut feeling for us instead of a concrete choice. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the reasons why we trust one person more than another – and easy to believe there is little we can do to change that. But when we assume that trust is dependent entirely on the behaviour of other people, as opposed to our own responses and interactions with those behaviours, we end up falling short as leaders.

Trust is a two-way street. If your team members feel you don’t trust them, they are less likely to trust you. This week, my message focuses on the importance of developing faith in your team. Why should leaders develop this capability? And what are some of the best ways to build trust?

If you lack trust in your team, you are likely to get over-involved in tasks that belong in their domain. This manifests as micromanagement and an inability to delegate work, sending a loud and clear message to your team members: “I don’t believe you can do your work independently.

Leaders who learn to believe in and rely on their teams enjoy many benefits:

  • Increased employee engagement and satisfaction
  • Effective cooperation and collaboration, boosting team performance
  • Better delegation, resulting in a more manageable personal schedule
  • The growth of star performers and future leaders within the team

On the other hand, if you lack trust in your team, you are likely to get over-involved in tasks that belong in their domain. This manifests as micromanagement and an inability to delegate work, sending a loud and clear message to your team members: “I don’t believe you can do your work independently.” Along with preventing people from growing under your leadership, this withholding of trust also filters down to the rest of the team, making it difficult for them to collaborate effectively with each other. The damage extends to you as well: since you can’t depend on your team, you take too much onto your own plate, which affects your performance and increases stress.

By relying less on gut instinct and taking a more thoughtful approach, you can learn to have faith in your team’s capabilities – even if it doesn’t come to you naturally. Here are 10 recommendations to foster greater trust:

1. Communicate openly

Many leaders hold their cards close to their chest. This reluctance to share information or explain decisions arises due to a variety of reasons: perceived loss of power, potential for leaks, risk of dissent and fear of being second-guessed. Unfortunately, it also signals that you don’t have faith in your team members.

Start trusting your team with information. Share the company’s broader vision and goals with them. Have frank dialogues around key strategy or policy changes, welcoming questions and addressing concerns. During tough times, don’t pretend that everything is fine – instead, provide context for why certain steps are being taken. At times, you may disclose sensitive information; in such cases, educate your team about the need for confidentiality and the potential dangers of leaks.

2. Make people accountable

In Can’t Trust Your Team? Why it Really Matters, Ben Brearly highlights the importance of assigning accountability:

If you want your team to run without micromanagement, assign accountability to various team members – put them “in charge” of some aspects of the team’s work. You need to ensure you state this clearly, along with your expectations. Otherwise your team might just assume that for everything, the buck stops with you (and not with them). You might be surprised about how motivated someone becomes once you clearly make them the lead for some aspect of your team’s performance.

3. Stay updated with one-on-one meetings

You may have doubts about an individual’s ability to pull off a project or follow through on a plan. How can you handle these concerns without micromanaging them? One solution is to have regular one-on-one meetings, where you can discuss pre-identified metrics and milestones. If these are on track, you can rest assured that the person is doing a satisfactory job. If not, make them feel comfortable enough to share problems so you can support them in finding resolutions.

4. Create space for mistakes

Part of giving up total control is a reasonable tolerance for errors. Instead of shaming team members for setbacks (which will only drive them to hide future mistakes), frame them as learning opportunities. Jen Su recommends curiosity in the face of failure:

Ask them guiding questions to push their thinking and deepen your understanding of their thought process: What assumptions or criteria underlie your assessment or decision? What risk framework did you apply to this? How will this impact the budget, timing, or work for another group?

5. Providing genuine feedback

To facilitate improvement, your team members need honest feedback. Sometimes leaders shirk from delivering criticism because (let’s face it) nobody likes having those tough conversations. Still, it’s crucial for you to get past your discomfort and provide this much-needed feedback. Trust the other person to receive criticism in the right spirit.

6. Train your team to make better decisions

Delegation is a vital part of trust; however, many managers have little faith in the decision-making abilities of their team members, preferring to make all the decisions themselves. As Jen Su explains, good judgment is a skill that must be taught by the leader:

After making important decisions, talk them through with your team. Explain the subjective and objective criteria you considered, risks and trade-offs you assessed, and stakeholder considerations. This will teach people how and why you make the choices that you do, give them a better understanding of the company’s priorities, and demonstrate the factors you would like them to consider when making judgement calls in the future.

7. Be clear about evaluation standards

Some leaders prefer not to share details around the evaluation process and say things like “everything will be considered”. This kind of secrecy only creates confusion and anxiety – your team members don’t know what exactly they’re being judged on through the year. With clarity around parameters right from the start, everyone is on the same page, increasing the credibility of evaluations.

8. Recognise different trust signals

In Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them, published in HBR Ascend, the authors highlight various indicators of trust (e.g., personal disclosure, vulnerability, openness) and explain how mismatched signals can cause a manager to distrust an employee:

The problem is that the indicators that matter to one person may not matter to someone else. If one of your direct reports shows vulnerability in an attempt to build your trust it might work or it might leave you wondering why they have so many doubts and fears. They are trying to build trust but achieving the opposite.

As the authors explain, leaders need to look past their gut reaction and understand the intent behind their team member’s actions:

If you are not particularly comfortable with personal disclosures from your staff, step back and recognize, “This person is trying to build a closer relationship; it’s not my style but I respect what they are trying to do.”

9. Nurture long-term career prospects

When a team member shows interest or potential, demonstrate your belief in their abilities by nominating them for learning opportunities or connecting them with a mentor. When the team sees that you have their professional growth and success at heart, their trust in your leadership also increases.

10. Be willing to take risks with the team

In the HBR Ascend article mentioned above, the authors highlight the trust deficit created by risk aversion:

Organizations that are risk averse may signal that employees cannot be trusted with resources and information… Managers may support their employees taking that initiative – but in a risk-averse organization, such ideas won’t likely see the light of day. One company we worked with was seeking to cultivate innovation and creativity, but the approval for new projects involved a 12-month process requiring endorsement from a C-suite committee. This process was effectively inaccessible to many employees, stifling innovation and leaving employees’ feeling untrusted.


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