Lately, I’ve run into too many instances of an absence of trust in the workplace. It’s not that this problem didn’t exist before, it’s just what I’m bumping into a lot lately. Most workplaces talk about trust as if it exists, but when you get under the covers, I usually find most trust that exists is superficial. A while ago, I had a manager ask me “How important is trust anyways? If the team would just do what’s expected isn’t that enough?” (seriously … this was a question)
Ummm … no that’s no enough. Well, not if you want your organization to survive and have a healthy future.
The perception of what it means to trust
What caught my interest in this topic is the paradox most organizations find themselves in without being aware they’re caught up in it. For example, I hear leaders say they trust their people, and yet I hear phrases like “we’re going to hold them accountable, so we know who’s throat to choke”. Seriously?!? Does that sound like a culture of trust to you?
Last week I posted about accountability, and the impact of holding people accountable has on people’s mindset. If you missed that post, accountability creates a culture of laying blame and justification. When the people get cornered and cannot lay blame or justify, they will shift to shame or obligation. This is because accountability is about dealing with what is/might be going wrong. Being held accountable means, you are going to be in a mindset that escapes responsibility for the outcome.
It’s been my observation that many corporate cultures are entrenched in the belief that by having clear accountabilities they have someone to trust to get the job done. Unfortunately, this is a misaligned belief. If you feel you need to hold someone accountable, the truth is it’s because there’s an absence of trust. Without trust, the people will not step up and help the organization thrive and grow.
A downward spiral
I once worked with a Director who’s boss was big on holding people accountable. In being held accountable for a team’s results, the Director spent most of his time focused on what was or could go wrong. He employed behaviours such as micro-management and being overly directive on a frequent basis.
When leaders use behaviours such as micro-management and being directive, the impact on the team is they will not feel trusted. People who don’t feel trusted are less likely to take risks or try to improve. Simply put, they are likely going to stop caring about trying to make things better and become more focused on complying with what they’re being told to do.
These behaviours, both on the part of the director and the team, result in the team being less transparent about what’s happening. They don’t feel trusted enough to trust the leader with bad news as they’re predicting how he’s going to respond. When these things do surface later (and they almost always do), the director starts believing the team is being deceitful and he cannot trust them. So in the places where they really could use the leader’s help, they keep problems under wraps hoping to avoid the headache of his meddling.
The director doesn’t trust the team, and through his actions erodes the team’s ability to trust him. Because the team’s actions reinforce the director’s lack of trust, in further erodes his trust in the team. This cycle caused by a lack of trust keeps getting reinforced causing the hole to go deeper and deeper.
What does it mean for a leader to trust
By definition, trust is the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” — Dictionary.com
The key to this definition is actually in the first two words. It’s a firm belief. A common misconception is thinking this firm belief is rooted in knowing the other person will succeed. We want to believe things will go perfectly most/all of the time. After all, if it does, we must be succeeding right?
“I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” — Thomas Edison
I hope it doesn’t take you 10,000 attempts to make something work. However, the point Thomas Edison is making is the only way to succeed is through action and not planning. Edison would not have invented the light bulb had he sat down and tried to create the perfect plan to avoid the risk of failure. Had Edison taken the perfect plan approach he would have failed and given up. The only way Edison invented the lightbulb was through experimentation and trusting in his ability to learn from and respond to what happens.
When I hear from leaders how they never fail, they’re telling me one of two things. A story about never failing tells me they’re actually in denial, or they’re not taking any risks and trying to improve. It’s easy to get it right every time if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, and never try to improve.
So stop trying to get everything to go right. Start by trusting in your ability to learn from and respond to whatever you learn on a day to day basis. Whether it’s a problem happening around you, or it’s by your actions you will be far more powerful when you can respond in a responsible manner to those things. To do anything else means you will be bogged down in planning activities for a LONG time.
Leading for Change
I shudder to think about the billions of dollars wasted each year trying to define and implement change in organizations. It’s not that change isn’t needed, however, by the time they devise the perfect plan the world has moved on and the plan is no longer relevant.
My wish for our world is one day we get to the point we have stopped talking about change. Instead, we are living in a culture firmly rooted in the trust of our abilities to learn and respond to any of our experiences.
It’s my belief people wake up every morning with good intention. They don’t get out of bed and set the intention of screwing the world up (I know there are exceptions to this, but that’s a very different problem). The problem these well-intentioned people bump into is actually a lack of trust. As a result, they hold back and don’t try to make things better.
Why not trust them to do a good job? Yes, they will make mistakes sometimes, and when that happens, be there to support them and help them learn from the mistake. Trust, learning, and adaptation are where real and lasting change comes from, not some plan you brilliantly devised last year.
Making this mindset shift takes practice, as it’s easy for me to describe this, but difficult to master. However, if you intend to trust your ability to respond to whatever happens, with time, you will suddenly find you have an organization capable of adapting and responding to whatever happens around it. Having the right mindset doesn’t mean you’re going to always have great outcomes. What will be different is when things do go wrong, you will be very quick to adapt to what you learn.
So if you’re a leader of change, start by learning to trust in your ability to respond to whatever happens around you. It will make it much easier to have that firm belief in others.
So how important is trust? Without it, you may as well give up trying.
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