Leadership is typically associated with action—with trying, doing, and achieving. However, there’s another side to leadership that focuses on the followers: trust. As leaders, we need to actively trust our followers, teams, and employees. While this sounds simple, it’s often a hard task for those of us who are goal-oriented.
Trusting other people requires us to let go of the impulse to control outcomes or people. It requires us to quell our defense mechanisms and ditch our preconceptions about “what’s right.” For Type A, coffee-clutching personalities, this goes against everything we stand for and believe. Trusting others is at odds with the take-charge spirit that permeates the business world. For example, in many companies, the most valued employees are those who force order, control chaos, and take decisive action. As the Roman poet Virgil said, “Fortune favors the bold.”
However, business success springs from empowered employees, and that requires mutual trust. On the one hand, you need your employees to trust you if you want them to follow your direction enthusiastically. On the other hand, you need to monitor their performance, which, if done too closely, comes across as distrust. To make matters worse, many leaders and managers work in organizations layered with forced hierarchies and inherently distrustful systems. It’s more difficult to instill trust in your workers if you’re an extension of a system that doesn’t trust them. “Oh, sure,” your workers may think, “I’ll trust you … just as soon as you stop monitoring our e-mails, stop drug testing, or stop requiring to-the-minute time reports.”
Establishing trust is hardest for new leaders
New leaders and managers, in particular, have the hardest time establishing what I call “TRUST Courage,” the courage of relying on others. For instance, consider how challenging it is for new managers to delegate important tasks to their direct reports. If an employee screws up, it reflects on the manager, not the employee.
Consequently, new managers struggle to let go of delegated tasks; instead, they hover over workers like smothering helicopter parents. In doing so, they thwart their employees’ development and keep themselves mired in tasks they don’t have time for—and should have outgrown at this point in their careers.
Delegation is a hard task for new (and even experienced) managers because it involves intentionally refraining from controlling an outcome. If a manager doesn’t trust that an employee will get the job done, he or she will take that task back—or worse—won’t even give the task to the employee in the first place. The result? Managers and employees become trapped in an unhealthy leadership dependency in which workers wait to be told what to do, like baby birds waiting for a meal. Inevitably, a dangerous cycle ensues: the manager completes the tasks, which prevents workers from gaining the experience and skills they need to perform the tasks, which keeps the manager from delegating the tasks, which requires the manager to finish the tasks—and it never ends.
Breaking the cycle
To break the cycle, you must build TRUST Courage. Yes, TRUST Courage involves taking on risk, gambling on other people, and accepting that you might get harmed in the process. It can be risky. You might feel vulnerable. You’ll be forced to rely on others’ actions, which are beyond your control. It will take courage to let employees do their jobs. It will take courage to keep yourself from interfering, to accept that employees will make mistakes. But the end result will be a more productive, efficient, and innovative workforce.
How can you trust your team more this week? What would that look like for you?