One of the most important things that a manager can do, and one of the most powerful, is to trust in others.
Trusting can be a hard thing to do. It involves letting go of control, letting decisions and actions lie in others’ hands. But without it you will exhaust yourself, undermine colleagues and employees, and ultimately waste many of the benefits of working with others.
Research going back as far as the 1960s shows that trusting your employees, giving them ownership over their work and the opportunity to solve problems for themselves, improves their job satisfaction. In the same way that we rely on customers to trust our brand and give it meaning and credibility, trusting colleagues empowers them, giving them meaning and status.
But it does more than that. Trusting employees and colleagues gives you the chance to reduce your workload. Without trust you must manage every detail. Letting go of that gives you the time to make the important decisions, to develop strategic plans and new initiatives, and in short, not to get caught up in micro management.
Whether it’s customers, suppliers, or government departments, trusting in outside people and organizations is essential to productivity.
Recent research from Korea shows that a higher level of interpersonal trust vastly increases the potential for entrepreneurship within a country, creating a more secure environment within which to take risks.
If you trust your suppliers, telling them what you need and trusting them to provide it in the right way, then you free them up to innovate and find the right solutions. And if you trust them enough to show them how your processes work, to have them work with rather than for you, then you can link up your separate processes, making them work more efficiently than ever before.
Listening to your customers works in much the same way. Trust them to understand their own desires. Trust them to give useful feedback. Listen to them and shape your brand around what they want.
Trust extends beyond trusting individual people. It extends to trusting the systems and technology that we build around us. The programs created by statisticians to process big data make better decisions than managers do. Yet despite all the evidence very few managers will let go of their control over decision-making and trust those programs.
This isn’t just about trusting a faceless machine. It’s about trusting your statisticians, your programmers, and decades of human development and data gathering. Learn to trust the people behind the machine.
If we let go of our control, let go of our decision-making power, and trust others, then we reduce our own power and authority. But we also improve our results and allow those others space to grow and to become worthy of our trust.
This isn’t easy. It involves accepting that others, be they colleagues, machines, or outside organizations, are as capable as you of making the right decisions on particular issues, if not more capable. And it involves going through the gut wrenching process of caring enough about what you achieve to let go of the “you” and focus on the “achieve.”
So what approaches are there to building trust?
Roger Schwarz, focusing on building trust within management teams, recommends starting by talking about results. Look at what your team or organization wants to achieve and then look at the ways in which you aren’t managing it.
This leads to more questions: What’s happening in the team to prevent those results? What behaviors are pushing you away from what you want to achieve? Then look deeper still, asking yourself what ways of thinking are driving these behaviors. This can highlight the presence of mistrust in the team and the ways it is damaging, relating this directly to the organization’s results and giving a clear motive to change.
Show how poor results stem from mistrust, and then trust can be built to improve those results.
Jim Dougherty, writing about his experience at Intralinks, focuses on meeting with employees and engaging in a two-way dialogue.
This is partly about showing employees that you listen to them and understand what they face. Get out onto the floor, see them in action and arrange opportunities for them to talk with you about their concerns. Following up in an appropriate way is crucial, not making this seem like an empty exercise, but it can provide you with invaluable insight as well as trust.
For this to work it’s not enough for you to just listen; you also need to open up. Share your own views and concerns with those employees, show that you trust them to act appropriately on your views, and you will encourage a real and meaningful dialogue.
Transparency is a recurring theme in articles on building trust. But it can be a painful thing to create. As Andrew McAfee has pointed out, when discussing trust in big data this involves openly facing the bad consequences of not trusting that data, something that can be extended to trusting colleagues. It involves giving time for those consequences to sink in, not facing them straight away while people are in denial or on the defensive. And it involves facing whatever changes become necessary, however hard they might be.
Building trust within your organization is only half the journey. You need to show your customers that you can be trusted as well. As Niraj Dawar has pointed out, if people trust your brand then they will be more willing to try new things that you offer. Your brand will gain meaning and credibility and they will keep coming back. But this will only happen if they trust you, your features, your brand, and the way you behave. That sense of integrity is vital to building trust.
Trust can be a hard thing to achieve, but there are many approaches to building it. Pick one, try it, and work from there. Things can only get better.
—Mark Lukens is a founding partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.