Trust--THE Critical Leadership Attribute

Quote: "There’s an expectation that you can work anywhere and be highly productive and engaged."

This is from an article about a new Plantronics office. They designed an office to be just unappealing enough that people would prefer to work from home. Never mind that they'll save some money, or that this is forward-thinking. Consider the implication: their trust level is so high that they enshrine it in architectural plans.

I've written a few articles about leadership traits. (See 9 Reasons Control Is Bad and 5 Great Leadership Tendencies That I've Actually Seen.) One of the common themes is trust. I'm now going to explain why trust is THE leadership attribute.

First, trust is the source of your power as a leader. Leaders derive authority from the people who appoint them, but their power comes from being followed. If people refuse to follow you, you are powerless to lead them. True, you can coerce people. That's a kind of power, but dragging people behind you in chains is not the same as leading them. To the extent that you sew fear you will not harvest inclination, initiative, or ingenuity. If you're bad enough, your subordinates will start plotting either their own exit or your demise.

To lead and be followed, a relationship of trust must exist. Someone has to extend and engender trust first. It must be the leader. (In fact, whoever extends that trust first is the leader, whether it's the boss or not.) Extending and engendering trust involves convincing followers of three things:
  • You can and will do what needs to be done as a leader.
  • Your primary concern is their personal success.
  • You trust them to fulfill the responsibilities that you give them.
If you can't do these three things, you have to fall back on some degree of coercion.

How do locate your position on the leadership-coercion scale? One way is to look at your rules. What is the fundamental function of a rule? To shore up a lack of trust! (I'm not talking about an immutable law, like "Don't touch the stove or you'll get burned." I'm talking about a rule that you make to get the results that you want.)

Rules reflect an assumption that people are not inclined to do what is right or best. When you make a rule, you are implying a lack of trust. Moreover, if you make a rule, there must be penalty, whether implicit or explicit. Otherwise the rule has no effect. Threatening penalties is coercion, not leadership.

For example, "No Running!" is a coercive way of saying, "Running is dangerous and may result in injuries." The natural penalty for running is the potential for an injury, but the coercive rule has an arbitrary penalty, namely being kicked out of the pool area. If you tell your people, in effect, "No Running!" you force them all to live under a threat, even if they're disinclined to run in the first place. What might you forego as a result? Creative new ways to make running safe, new surfaces that prevent injuries for people who run, etc.

How do you start to trust more? Begin by questioning your rules. A story will illustrate:

Once I was tasked with creating a Suggestion Box for an IT department. When it was done, we had a stakeholder meeting to review it and to craft a welcome email to all of the IT personnel. The first suggestion made was this: "We need to tell them that the suggestion box is for constructive feedback, not for complaining." Everyone agreed, except me. I asked why we needed that statement. "Do we have reason to believe that people will use it to complain? Will we still get frank feedback if we start with a rule that assumes the worst? Do we want real feedback, or just positive feedback?" We all agreed to forego that statement, as well as several additional rules that, for some reason, seemed intuitively necessary to several people.  (As it turns out, feedback to the Suggestion Box was professional and constructive.)

Another story involved a team that was complaining about senior management frequently. Then something happened. Someone on the team was blamed for a major incident that really wasn't his fault. Everybody knew it, but he was about to take a hard fall for it anyway. The damage to morale would have been irreparable. At that time, a senior director stepped in. He called a meeting with the team and forcefully apologized for what was happening, ascribing all of the accountability to himself, and swearing that this sort of thing would never happen again. He then scheduled a series of meetings to just listen to the team. Almost overnight, the trust that he created increased his power to lead the team several fold. Rather than minimally complying, people were actively trying to support him and going out of their way to praise him behind his back.

He build relationships and harnessed their power. Relationships are based in trust, and thus inspire our best action. They foster respect, admiration, and camaraderie. Rules foster resentment, indifference, and fear.

If you genuinely trust your people and you are sincerely inclined to their welfare, your only limit is the upper bound of their best synergistic output, which you have the power to help improve! If you don't trust them, though, you are restricted to whatever you can force them to produce. This is why, whether your a senior director, a parent, or even an individual contributor, trust is THE critical leadership attribute.

No comments: