Trust is an interesting phenomenon. It has to be earned, as we all will generally concede, but I would add that it has to be re-earned with every opportunity presented. The trust I earned yesterday to complete project A may not necessarily convey to my abilities, talents, and likelihood of properly dealing with project B tomorrow. I must do my best to earn trust again, and again, and again.
To really trust someone, let’s say a subordinate for the sake of this illustration; one must assume a degree of risk.
As many have said, trust and risk are two sides of the same coin. As leaders or supervisors, we are probably more comfortable with our own skills and abilities than in allowing someone else to assume responsibility for OUR mission or task. Doing “it” ourselves may prove easier, faster, and probably a lot less risky. Good leaders try to avoid that temptation and take the risk of letting their staff member carry out that mission. Surely, guidance needs to be provided, along with a timeline, and certainly clearly articulated expectations will help facilitate success. When we allow the staff member to “carry the ball,” we develop new skills as leaders (along with trust, perhaps patience) and we promote the professional and personal growth of the subordinate. Yup, risk is ever-present, but the rewards can be immediate and long lasting.
I recall serving in a leadership position on active duty in the Army many years ago. A written report and an oral briefing from my office, on a particular mission, was required for my boss, the commanding general. I directed an “action officer” who was responsible for the area being discussed prepare the packet (slides and decision paper) that I would use for my presentation and briefing. The day before the scheduled briefing, I thought it might be a good idea to have the action officer actually deliver the presentation to the general herself. After all, she was much more fluent in the content than I and would be in a far better position to instantly address any questions my boss might pose. So, as my action officer delivered the briefing packet and slides to me, I asked her if she felt comfortable with the final product before we proceeded. She did, and therefore, so did I. Then I informed her that she would brief the general the following day and that I would attend in a support role. I explained that I felt confident in her depth of knowledge on the subject and in her ability to thoroughly update the general to both his and my satisfaction. Her response was just what I had hoped it would be; she stood taller, smiled and said “yes,” adding something along the lines of “really sir?” She was surprised but not overwhelmed, and I thought that spoke to her confidence in the product and herself as a briefer. I gave her the opportunity to “murder board” the briefing with me first – where I get to play the general and pepper her with questions that he may ask, so she can be prepared to answer him and be comfortable with the back and forth that typically occurs during such presentations. She agreed to this, and we felt ready to go the next day. It worked out very well and she did a wonderful job. The general heard what he needed to hear and had his questions answered appropriately. I was proud of my soldier and perhaps more important, she was proud of herself. Her confidence soared and word spread within my organization that I was a trusting soul and willing to allow my staff to stretch a bit and speak for the organization. From then on, no one knew when they gave me a briefing packet if I would turn the event over to them or do it myself. I would often do so, but not always, as it wasn’t always appropriate. The quality of the information and analysis I was given markedly improved as well. If YOU may be the one on the front lines, you WILL make sure the product is the very best it can be.
I have been around so many great employees and superb service members and government civilian workers who are rarely (and sometimes never) afforded the opportunity to be out in front – to make decisions, deliver presentations to senior leaders, or to even coordinate with others outside of the organization. This is typically a demonstration of a lack of trust in that subordinate. If you think that it’s not noticed and internalized and even resented, think again. Think about how you, as a senior leader, got to your station in life. Shouldn’t you provide similar opportunities for your employees? Didn’t you occasionally fail? Shouldn’t you allow some degree of failure in your organization? I think you know the answer, but what will you do about it? Are you willing to underwrite the occasional failure to ensure growth and development of others?
Are you in the trust or ANTITRUST business?
Let’s not confuse trust with management. Because I need to manage a program or a task that you are responsible to accomplish, doesn’t mean I don’t trust you to do it. I am merely exercising my responsibility to properly “manage” the work. That’s my job, and it may be yours as well as a junior leader. Remember that the leader is ultimately ACCOUNTABLE for the success or failure of the organization and its mission. He or she may not be directly responsible for the outcome, but they are ultimately responsible and held to account – an important distinction.
“Trust is more than a noun, an adjective, or a verb; it’s an emotion.”
Exhibiting trust and confidence in someone is an emotional event for that other person. It is a validation of their importance and value to you and the organization. Yes, of course there is some risk in trusting another, but there is also risk in not trusting someone. The other person won’t grow, will feel under-appreciated, under-utilized, and stuck in the muck while you get all the glory. That’s a risk to your reputation as a person and as a leader. After all, if you were doing your job as a leader, your subordinate would be well-trained and capable to speak for you occasionally. If they are not – it is more than likely your fault.