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Strong Female Lead

Three Steps For Millennial Women To Build Trust At Work

One reason for the gender leadership gap is the greater obstacles women face to building trust with their managers.

Three Steps For Millennial Women To Build Trust At Work
[Photo: Jacob Lund via Shutterstock]

As you've no doubt heard by now, millennials now make up the largest share of the U.S. workforce. But you might not have heard that, according to a Bain & Company study, more than 60% of millennial women experience declines in aspiration and confidence after joining it. And it turns out those drops have little to do with a desire to get married and have children. In fact, the data show no significant difference between women who aspire to leadership and those who don’t.

While there are several reasons why women disproportionately fall out of the leadership pipeline, one underlying factor is trust. Millennial women need to actively build more of it—among colleagues, managers, and leaders—than many of their male peers do in order to succeed. Here's why, and how.

Why Women Are Less Trusted

There are others, to be sure, but here are three key reasons millennial women face an uphill battle when it comes to establishing trust at work:

1. Stereotypes and experience bias. In addition to enduring identity biases, millennials (regardless of gender) face unflattering generational stereotypes. Work cultures still haven't shaken the assumption that millennials are "lazy," "entitled," "selfish," and "shallow," and that they need accolades in order to stay motivated. This is despite research debunking well-worn myths that millennials have different career goals and expectations than older generations.

2. Unfair performance measures. Implicitly or explicitly, many workplaces continue to support the "ideal worker" model, which rewards workers who work long hours and have a high profile. Not only does that lead to skewed ideas about productivity, it's been shown to shortchange women in particular—more often helping men advance, but not women.

3. Bad or inadequate management. According to Gallup, only 18% of current managers have the complete skill set it takes to manage a team effectively, and separate research from Bain suggests that unsupportive frontline managers play an added role in eroding millennial women’s aspirations.

What all this points to is the primacy of the relationship between managers and direct reports. Arguably more than anything else, that's what impacts productivity, performance, engagement, and all the other terms we've developed in order to explain and quantify what it takes for any given employee to get ahead. Trust, of course, is at the center of that relationship, which helps explain why 80% of employees in one report being unable to do a good job if they don't trust their manager.

Two Types Of Trust

That much is intuitive. Less obvious is the fact that there are actually two types of trusting behavior that shape how well employees and managers interact: reliance and disclosure.

Reliance-related behaviors are when, for instance, a manager surrenders control, offers valuable resources, or delegates decisions to a subordinate. Disclosure comes down to information sharing—like when a direct report approaches her manager about a personal or sensitive issue. Other behaviors, of course, are fundamentally distrusting: overly monitoring, micromanaging, or cutting someone off from support or information.

You might prefer your boss to take the lead with building trust on your team. That's something many of us just assume managers are supposed to do. But if you're a millennial woman, the unique set of challenges you're likely up against can make it a good move to take some of that responsibility into your own hands. These three steps can help.

1. Know yourself. Trust can be both built and broken down based on experiences that take place outside the workplace—in your own life, in past jobs you've held, as well as in your managers'. What events have made you more likely to trust or distrust others—and on what basis?

Be honest with yourself, not judgmental. Answering this question requires you to examine your personal history, cultural background, and personality. Trust always entails taking some kind of risk on another person. Once you know and understand who you are, you can evaluate whether you’re able to work beyond your historical limitations.

2. Get to know your boss—and be patient. Building trust requires not just self-examination but also strategy. You should get to know your boss, and that takes discipline. If your manager prefers lots of communication, communicate regularly. If he or she wants the details of your work and not the main highlights, be sure to provide them. Think of your relationship with your boss as a discovery process, and be willing to take on the work, within reason.

I know what you’re thinking: You went through this process already, and discovered you and your boss couldn’t be more different. You see your manager as unsupportive. You don't have a mentorship- or sponsorship-based interaction.

That’s okay—because it's here where you exercise trust. Consider this: You aren’t going to change your boss, so put yourself in their shoes. What are their goals and pressures? What are their weaknesses and strengths?

Asking those questions can help you pinpoint commonalities and ways to add value to your work together. Your manager isn’t going to be good at everything, so try to find ways to provide support in those areas. Also, you aren’t going to be good at everything, so be sure to take advantage of your manager’s strengths and, by doing so, remind them that you respect them.

3. Know when the problem is bigger than you both. The power dynamics in the manager-employee relationship also impact how well you trust one another. Management theorist Peter Drucker identified the five basic tasks of a manager:

  1. Sets objectives
  2. Organizes
  3. Motivates her team
  4. Measures
  5. Develops people

In some ways, the ability for a manager to fulfill these goals is institutionally determined. Maybe your company doesn't give your manager enough control or resources to be able to see each of these tasks through. Or maybe they've been given too much control, and have too many managerial duties to deal with.

As a direct report, run a mental assessment. Is your relationship interdependent and healthy—despite all the factors that influence it, like your backgrounds, experience, and cultural and personality differences? If the answer is no, then it may be time to seek other opportunities, either within your company or elsewhere.

So trust yourself. In these cases, there's not much you can do to build more trust between you and your boss. I'm reminded of a well-known quote by Milton Berle: "If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door." For millennial women especially, if you can’t see your way up one talent ladder, don’t be afraid to find another to climb.

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