Trust is an amazingly simple concept yet it is one of the hardest things to give to another person. We have learned from our childhood only to trust those we really know, and even then, only if we’ve seen actions in the other individual that lead us to believe that trust is warranted. But every day we are forced to place our trust in people we don’t know. You trust mechanics to fix your car correctly even if you don’t know them. You trust your bank to properly handle your funds. You trust that the pilots flying your airplane know what they are doing. In all of those cases, the trust is given because we believe we either have some other action we can take if our trust is breached and / or we trust the company that these people work for.
Now, think about your team members. Did you trust them right away like your mechanic, your banker, or your pilot? Probably not… especially if you’ve never worked with them before. We withhold our trust because we do not yet feel comfortable with our teammates and we don’t have the benefit of knowing that there is another action we can take if they fail. In fact, if they fail, we too are likely to fail. From a professional standpoint, a failed trust relationship is worse than a messed up bank account or a fouled up car. Okay, I’ll grant you that a crashed airplane has horrible implications, but the point I’m trying to get across is that our trust is harder to earn when we believe that we will be personally affected by the outcome of the work of the other individual.
Trust on the Personal Level
If trust is so hard to give on a personal level, why then is leadership all about trust? It is due to a funny quirk of the human psychology. People will not and cannot perform to their fullest unless they are trusted. This is because people will begin to second guess each decision that needs to be made. That second guessing will cause them to slow down. It will cause them to check with their lead to ensure that what they are doing is right. A delay in their work is likely to occur as the leader may be in a meeting.
Beyond second guessing there is a deeper issue. Pride. A team member who is not trusted will not have pride in their work because they believe that it is someone else’s responsibility and decision to do the work. They begin to feel like just another pair of hands instead of a full-fledged member of the team. If people do not feel like they belong, they will place themselves on auto-pilot and will become just another pair of hands.
You can see the effects of this happening when they stop adding constructive comments, when they become silent in meetings, and when they begin to stop caring about the project goals. All are dangerous signs that the team member has disengaged.
It is important that you don’t let this happen.
You need to Trust, but with a bit of Caution
Blind trust is also not necessary. Just like not trusting someone, blind trust can also have disastrous consequences. You need to understand each and every one of your team members and get a feel for just how much trust they need. Some need complete trust and some don’t want that trust.
It is your job as a leader to determine what level of trust each team member needs and to give it to them. Once you’ve determined the level of trust each person needs, you can then determine what level of caution you need to apply.
Caution, in this instance, is simply getting your team to report on their progress. Reports, daily scrum meetings, status meetings, or a casual walk around are just some of the methods you can use to check up on your team.
I like the scrum based meetings because you get a quick daily update without it being onerous and you find out what is holding people up, what is getting accomplished, and what the next steps are. You don’t have to be an agile project to make use of this method of project communication.
You have to give them the Opportunity to Fail
I describe leadership and trust to new project managers and leaders as: “You have to give them the opportunity to fail.” It is a backwards way of saying “you have to trust them to succeed,” but the first sentence responds to our own inner fear of “what if they fail?”
There are times when your experience screams that a task needs to be approached in a particular way. If your team member decides that a different way is better and they have confidence in that way, then you have to let them try. Mind you, you should also ensure you explain why you are hesitant about the path and explain some of the roadblocks that might affect them. If they are still keen on taking a different approach, then you need to let them. Just remind them that they are responsible for the success of the work. This approach gets their complete buy in and makes them take on responsibility for the success of the task. To be honest, most team members will put in the extra effort to prove themselves right. And at the end of the day you shouldn’t care too much about the path taken, but focus instead on the goal that was achieved.
With trust you will achieve your goals, but perhaps not in the same path that you would have originally thought. And achieving one’s goals is what effective leadership is all about.