Would you trust your doctor to repair your car

Reach for it (she made it, btw). By Lorie Shaull
Reach for it (she made it, btw).  Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

When people move up in the world, do you notice how they sometimes expect to be trusted?  It’s almost as if the trust were some kind of cherished prize attached to status and position.  But that’s not how it works.  Trust is something people earn.  And the ways in which trust is earned are mysterious and counter-intuitive.

Onara O’Neill’s TED Talk on What We Don’t Understand About Trust is an eye-opening revelation of an ambiguous concept.  Trust is a sentiment experienced by the trust-er, not by the person hoping to be trusted. In order to receive the trust of others, one must behave in a manner that is trustworthy.  This trustworthiness is judged on whether someone is honest, competent, and reliable.

You can trust people on some behaviours but not others.  For example, you can trust leaders to make good decisions, but perhaps not trust them to understand the perspective of those who are less powerful.  This dichotomy can make lives difficult for leaders who make missteps in empathy.

It’s also possible to trust someone will give accurate information, but not trust that they will guard your secrets.  For me, that’s the analyst’s dilemma.  The act of sharing information too freely can discourage people from providing the very information that is needed to advance research.  Conversely, being over-protective of information sends off signals you’re using the information for your own benefit, or for the sole benefit of your masters.

Trust can be localized to the profession of the person in question.  There is no good reason to presume a physician would provide good advice on auto-mechanics.  A doctor’s importance, intelligence, and general credibility might normally sway you, but this influence should have no bearing on whether you trust them on topics outside their expertise.  This distinction should be key when considering the trustworthiness of senior leaders in your workplace.  Do you ever see leaders express their views about how the world really works, while they stray outside their area of professional competence?  It doesn’t instil confidence.  Someone should tell them.  But who?

If only it were possible for clear opinions to go up and down the hierarchy.

The Features of Two-Directional Trust

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article from July 2017 entitled “Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them”, describes how workplace performance suffers if employees perceive they are not trusted by their managers.

The authors note: “Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization.” The degree to which employees trust their manager is sensitive to the degree to which the manager trusts them. And if there is any chicken-and-egg question, it’s easy to see the direction of causation: leaders set the tone.  Sometimes by accident.

The authors bemoan how workplaces often have rules and structures which minimize risk, and this environment can undercut the degree to which those with less power feel trusted:

Centralization of authority, restricted resources and information, and bureaucratic cultures heavy with regulation limit employee initiative. Managers may support their employees taking that initiative — but in a risk-averse organization, such ideas won’t likely see the light of day.

Smothering risk-taking creates an environment where people are not free to apply their best judgment.  As I described in a related post on workplace dress codes, judgment is a skill that needs to be used regularly to be effective.  Excessive rules create a workplace culture where people are out-of-practice making judgement calls when something emerges in a grey area.  This is how a doctor got bloodied by security for refusing to get off an overbooked flight on United Airlines.

Instead of creating and enforcing rules, it is far more effective for managers to cultivate employee talents (i.e. generating competence), give a clear direction of what is expected every day (in a bid for honesty), and set clear accountabilities (fostering reliability).  If the manager has conveyed a sense of trust, the employee should be in a good position to ask for help, having already taken their talents to the limit.

The Paradox of the Bottom-Line Focus

In the HBR article, another reason managers convey a lack of trust is a bottom-line mentality.  It makes sense for management to focus on a core goal, which might be the earning of money.

However, in the pursuit of this top-level goal

…many managers become focused on their job security and respond by constricting control.  This can lead to the type of thinking that focuses on only securing bottom-line outcomes, which often come at the expense of other priorities, such as developing relationships and empowering employees to make independent decisions.

Pressure to focus on the bottom line may cause insecure managers to pass along the insecurity to subordinates in the form of control.  That dynamic creates enough side-effects that the people lose their devotion to profit maximization.  It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine a world where powerful people think profit maximization is where it’s at, and their subordinates wonder “what’s the point?”

By contrast, a workplace culture of empowerment and independent application of competence can be an engine of bottom-line outcomes.  Some managers don’t perceive that this is the case, allowing their creeping control tendencies and myopic perspective to take over.  The villain here is not people who make sound leadership decisions while sacrificing employee independence, it is managers who perceive no trade-off whatsoever.

Self-Awareness Continues to Be a Key Attribute

The manager’s lack of self-awareness is a big factor in the lack of two-directional trust.  Many managers think in their own mind that they trust employees, but send off signals that they do not.  Managers often scrutinize work in a manner that expresses a lack of trust.  This scrutiny is so close to the expectation-setting and accountability culture that would be the feature of a high-functioning and high-trust environment.

How can you tell which environment you have created?  You can take stock through qualitative measurement and feedback systems to help managers overcome lack of awareness.  If the manager rejects push-back and negates survey findings, this might be a clue.  A trusting manager would need to carefully give up control in an incremental manner which measures and tolerates risk-taking.  Well-taken risks are usually calculated risks, and better information can reduce fear in the face of those risks. First, the information needs to be created, then it needs to be pushed down into the hands of the people to whom control and trust have been granted.

Employers need to increase information-sharing, including the sharing of bad-news items, on the presumption that employees are adults.  Employees’ understanding of management decision-making is important for two-directional trust.

On the topic of unpleasant conversations, a leader can also encourage transparent conversations about career aspirations.  From the metrics, a manager should know the odds that an employee might leave.  Maybe talking about goals more openly will give the employer the opportunity to help that employee grow into a new skill set?  I foresee an interesting exchange, that the employer has confidential information about corporate decision-making, and the employee has private information about their work-place and where else they think they could do better work.

The exchange of these two pieces of information obviously involves an exchange of trust, with the information mostly acting as the frisbee that is being passed back and forth.  And you can’t foster a high-functioning environment if managers keep the frisbee framed on a wall in their basement.

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