Why Trust is Critical to Leadership

In my opinion, there is nothing more important to the leadership of a team than the trust that develops between the team members and its leader.  This is true across many industries and careers so, in that sense, this post won’t be dedicated to pulling out the distinctions for technical teams.  I believe most of what I intend to discuss is almost universally applicable.  To begin the topic, I’d like to reference a historical text that has been used to provide guidance on leadership.  In The Prince, Machiavelli famously stated that, “It is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”  I mention the quote not to debate the main points of the book (that has been done endlessly) but to outline some possible aims of leadership.  I hope you will indulge the comparison.  In the context of leading organizations, I would modify Machiavelli and state that it is better to be trusted than it is to be feared or loved.  Leading out of fear simply gains followers based on a threat.  Leading as someone who is loved is too personal for the business environment.  Managing as someone who is trusted to act fairly and to do the right thing is, I believe, critical to the success of leadership.

Perhaps the comparison to Machiavelli is unfair based on context but I would like to investigate the three leadership styles in play to illustrate my thesis (apologies to Niccolò).  The first style of leadership, one based on fear, is one that I have seen (although not too often) in technical teams.  Leaders of this type tend to introduce fires, what-ifs, and other situations to drive a sense of urgency on the team.  While this may be effective for a short period of time, over the long run, it exhausts a group.  One cannot be expected to jump from crisis to crisis continually without tiring.  Not everything is a P0 and when the team wises up to that fact, the leader has lost all sway.  A leader that continually cries wolf will end up with a slaughtered flock when an actual crisis crops up and no one picks up their cell phone.  While I use the metaphor, this is not contained merely to the operational realm.  Setting false deadlines on projects, introducing new must-have deliverables that are really nice-to-haves, and casually mentioning performance reviews are all examples of this style.  In the business world, this is certainly not outwardly aggressive (that would be an HR issue) but is instead passive, meant to instill uncertainty and in it’s most insidious form, fear of termination.  From my description, it’s obvious I don’t approve, but I know there may be some that say I’m not giving this style a fair shake – please feel free to comment!

If not leading out of fear, what about being loved?  I’m planning an entire post on personal relationships in the technology team space so I won’t dive into that here.  I’d like instead to contain the discussion to the idea of being liked by everyone on your team.  Early in my career, this was a priority, and if I’m being honest, still lingers to this day.  I’ve come to accept that there are those that simply won’t get along with you and that is OK.  Some leaders however, do not accept this limitation and strive to be well liked by everyone in their group.  While this is good from an influence perspective, I believe it is fraught with risk.  The biggest issue I have with this style is the inability to have difficult conversations.  People are, in general, conflict averse and having hard conversations around performance is not something many people do effectively.  Take a look at your last performance review and try to find a place where your manager decided to be overtly critical.  Find a place where needed improvement was mentioned without a softening compliment soon after.  It is hard to be critical of each other, especially when we want to be well liked.  As leaders, this is extremely difficult because while we should all strive to grow our teams through constructive feedback, a negative reaction to criticism is a real probability.  Those that desire to be loved shy away from that tense situation and in the end, let their teams down.  Some practical examples may be a failure to deal with an under-performing employee, promoting someone based on tenure, or bowing to a more aggressive team member.  All of these examples may be well-intentioned but do not serve the team in the end.  I suppose that I prefer this style to being feared but they both fall behind trust.

Leading through trust involves a lot of things but most key in my mind is transparency.  Honesty with your team is critical.  This means conveying information you’re at liberty to, being open about your expectations, providing timely feedback, admitting your own mistakes, and being open to feedback from your team.

As managers, we are privy to large amounts of information prior to our teams.  Some of this information can be shared and some cannot.  Knowing where that boundary lies is critical to developing trust with your team (and in some cases, keeping your job).  It is important that you share relevant information with your team as quickly as possible.  A well informed team will make good decisions without the need to consult you.  This is empowering and creates and environment of constant communication – something good for any organization.  From a practical perspective, I convey this information in 1:1s, at team meetings, project meetings, and where ever else seems appropriate.  I try to focus on getting the right information to the right people at the right time.  This can be hard to accomplish and problematic if you accidentally exclude someone but is something I work at constantly.  In technical fields, as in other occupations, information is key and holding back or delaying is detrimental to the team overall and can hurt relationships if people feel intentionally left out.  While this may seem obvious, I have had interaction with leaders who have intentionally held back information so as not to “muddy the waters” but ended up being counterproductive.

Communication of expectations is also important in establishing trust not only with your team but among team members.  One practical example of this concerns annual reviews.  Whether the giver or receiver, the worst possible outcome is to be completely misaligned when it comes to someone’s performance.  If, as a manager, your employee disagrees completely with what you have written in a review, you’ve failed.  Performance, and expectations around it, should be a constant dialogue with your team.  Whether it is around something as large as an annual assessment or as small as the next project task, it is critical to be clear on what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by.  Team members will return this transparency of expectations by making commitments and hitting them (something I’ve mentioned in a past post).  This results in a completely above-board and trusting work environment.  And no surprises when it comes to performance.

Feedback between a team and its leader is the final part of trust that I want to address.  It is important to provide feedback to your individual team members in a timely manner.  Positive or negative, waiting a week to mention something from the meeting you just held isn’t very useful.  Be up front if someone does something that doesn’t meet your expectations but let them know in private.  If someone does something great, let them know as well – and do it publicly if appropriate.  As leaders we must also be open to feedback from our teams.  Do not wait for people to speak up, search it out.  Just as important as hearing criticism is acting on it.  You need to let the team know that you’ve heard where they’d like you to improve and are taking steps to do so.  Admit your mistakes and report out on your progress in rectifying them.  Nothing is worse than getting up the courage to talk to your manager around something that is bothering you and being blown off.  Constructive criticism is a two way trust relationship.  The person raising the issue needs to trust the recipient to hear, respond to, and take steps to resolve problems (as opposed to flipping out and storming off).  Likewise, the recipient of criticism must trust that the source is not trying to be a jerk and has an honest concern.  I think a mark of high performing teams is when team members can challenge each other to be better in an open and honest manner and that this feedback is received in an open and healthy manner.  No better place for this behavior to start than with the manager.


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