Publications

Impulses / Texts

Trust-Based
Leadership

Dr. Arlena Jung

Trust and accountability are more important than ever. Agility and accountability New Work as well as remote leadership depend on trust and accountability.

Without trust and accountability work environments based on shared responsibility and designed to use the individual creativity and potential of employees are doomed to fail. So what can managers do to facilitate a culture of trust and accountability in their teams and companies?

 

 

Trust and Control

Perhaps you are familiar with this saying: "Trust is good. Control is better." This saying supposedly goes back to Lenin. And it is based on a widely spread misunderstanding about what trust actually means. In this saying trust is being equated with the relinquishment of control. In order give my employees responsibility I must not only have confidence in their competence but also in their sense of responsibility. So far sound reasoning. If trust is equated with the relinquishment of control things become a little more difficult. Trust then amounts to a leap of faith. As we will see later in the text trust based on a leap of faith is detrimental – as is unconditional trust.

Unfortunately many leaders seem to more equate trust with a leap of faith. In consequence they are faced with an unresolvable dilemma as they are then left with a choice between two equally dysfunctional options. Option number 1: They do not rely on trust. This leads to micromanagement and an increasingly tight net of checks and balances. In an increasingly competitive, complex and high speed world this is a certain recipe continual stress and a possible burnout. In addition they are guaranteed to be demotivating precisely those employees that are capable, motivated and would like nothing more than to take on more responsibility. Option number 2: They take the leap of faith. In this case they end up with a very different kind of stress, namely the anxiety and insecurity that results from the sense of a loss of control. As a result they will in all likelihood be sending their employees very mixed messages. Implying they want them to take the responsibility of finding their own solutions, while second guessing every second or third decisions their employees make. This blog is about gaining a better, more differentiated understanding of trust. Only with a well-founded understanding of what trust is based on can we create a healthy foundation for forms of cooperation based on shared responsibility.

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Trust in Mature Teams

Trust without control can work out just fine...at least if you have very mature teams that identifies both with the team goals and with the quality of their individual work. In a mature team the team members trust deeply in their ability to meet the challenges they face both in everyday and in critical situations. They enjoy the responsibility of mastering these challenges and of working together on solving tricky problems. Mature teams experience getting the space they need to develop their own solutions as empowering and motivating. In mature teams agile tools and practices work wonderfully from day one. They already have the mindset it takes.

Trust and Hierarchy

There will, however, always be teams that do not yet have the mindset of an agile team – especially in firms that have only just begun the transformation to an agile organization. In these companies employees have been socialized into hierarchical structures. They have learned to trust in the experience and expertise of their superiors rather than to rely on their own judgement and take on responsibilities. In a hierarchical company employees will seldom have had sufficient opportunities to learn the skills needed of agile teams. More likely than not they will not only lack experience in coordinating tasks, in making qualified decisions and in participating in solution-oriented dialogs. They will also lack the self-confidence and sense of self-efficacy gained from this type of experience. And now they are expected to function as self-sufficient, agile teams in no need of leadership?

Now let us paint a more drastic picture. Imagine a company in which mistakes and weak performance are meet with a negative feedback culture. In these contexts employees will not only lack the confidence und solution-orientation needed agile teams. They will also lack the necessary trust in their superiors. Both a deep conviction of one’s own adequacy as well as a sense of security are indispensable prerequisites for intrinsic motivation and a desire to take on more responsibilities. Without these two prerequisites taking on more responsibilities not only feels like a risk. It is a risk unwisely taken.

Pushing employees to take on more responsibilities while fostering a negative feedback culture is, unfortunately, a paradox that is not all that rare. Without realizing it managers are setting the stage for failure. The consequence of these contradictory messages are insecure, opportunistic and/or demotivated employees. And how do these managers react to their increasingly insecure, demotivated and/or opportunistic employees? What lessons do they learn? What conclusions do they draw from these dynamics? Not realizing that they are a key factor in creating exactly the mindset they are trying to avoid they more often than not do more of the same, assuming that the only way to deal with insecure, demotivated and opportunistic employees is an increasingly tight regime of command and control.

In short: Command-and-control communication is very destructive in terms of intrinsic motivation. It has all the components of a self-fulfilling prophecy and all the ingredients needed to create a spiral of demotivation and mistrust.

The Downward Spiral of Mistrust

What we then see is a negative spiral. The lack of trust in employees leads to increasingly detailed instructions and controls. The self-confidence and motivation of the continually disempowered employees slowly begins to erode. Demotivation and a reduced identification with team goals and quality criteria are probably the most common but not the only possible consequence.

Employees that have a strong inner drive to achieve something and go forward in their careers might react differently. Lack of trust and controlling behavior will reduce both their identification with team and company goals as well their willingness to cooperate just as it will with any other employee. There drive to succeed might, however, remain intact. What superiors have then done with their controlling behavior is sown the seeds for opportunism, micro politics and power games.

The Upward Spiral of Trust

The good news is that it is not only lack of trust that can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. So can trust. What we then experience is the dynamic of a positive upward spiral of (self)-confidence, identification with team and company goals, cooperative behavior and high performance teams.

Trust is a strong motivator. Trust begins with confidence. Showing your employees that you trust them and have confidence in them is a sign of deep respect and appreciation. With the trust you place in them you are also expressing an expectation. The trust placed you place in someone almost always act as a strong motivator, driving them to do what it takes to fulfill your expectations and not disappoint you.

Collaboration based on mutual trust has in addition the positive side effect of reducing complexity. Trust is, however, not only a cognitive affair. In order to truly understand the impact trust can have on working relations we need to consider the emotional benefits. Trusting someone means being able to rely on them and to be sure they mean well by you. And being able to do this gives us a deep sense of security and safety but also of belonging and solidarity.

Those who are not able to trust are actually in many ways actively creating an environment in which they constantly have to second guess everyone’s actions and motivation. They are inadvertently creating a world in which they constantly have to be on your guard in order not be taken advantage of or double played. Trust-based leadership means creating an environment, in which being able to rely on each other to do their best to both support each other individually and meet team goals – giving you and them the security all of you need to focus on challenging operative tasks and on pressing strategic issues.

Having your trust abused hurts…as does not being trusted!

Having your trust abused hurts in a very literal way – as does being mistrusted. This is due to very fundamental needs common to all human beings.

Experiments in game theory show that probands more often than not prefer not to receive any reward than accept one they experience as not being fair. The most well-known of these experiments are the ultimatum game and the dictator game..

There is a reason for this that can be explained with the results of neuroscientific studies. Perhaps you can guess what it is based on your own experience with unfair treatment? Being treated unfairly hurts. Neuroscientific studies have shown that when participants feel unfairly treated the anterior insula is activated. This is a region of the brain responsible for processing pain, disgust and also the part of the brain that is activated in conflicts. The need to be treated fairly is apparently not restricted to human beings. Animal experiments have shown that monkeys and dogs that witness other animals receiving a better reward than they do, refuse to go on doing the tricks they would have to do to get their treats. Sometimes not receiving any reward at all feels better than accepting the degradation inherent to an unfair reward. Perhaps you are familiar with the feeling?

What does all this have to do with trust? Reciprocity and the concept of being treated fairly are basic social norms common to all human societies and also apparently to some animal societies. We all have a deep need to trust and be trusted. We have a deeply felt need to trust that we will be treated fairly and that basic norms of reciprocity will be upheld. This is a fundamental prerequisite for any form of cooperation. This raises a couple of very important questions: If trust is so essential and fundamental to how people function as individuals and social beings, why, then, do some people find it so difficult to trust others? Perhaps because we know from experience that there are people that engage in opportunistic behavior, micro politics and power games? But why is it that people engage again and again in behavior that erodes the very foundations of trust, chipping away at the very kit that holds our societies, companies and teams together? And, perhaps more importantly, how can we create environments in which people are more likely to engage in trust building activities than in the socially destructive behavior of opportunistic micro politics and power games?

The Fundamental Dilemma of Trust-Based Leadership

In order to gain and maintain an competitive edge in dynamic and volatile markets companies need motivated, creative and responsible employees. In order to unleash their creativity and develop a sense of purpose employees need executives leaders that trust them and have confidence in them. Only then will they get the space and be provided with constructive feedback they need to become truly engaged. Only then will they have the courage to find innovative solutions continually changing challenges.

Trust-based leadership means resolving a fundamental dilemma that has both cognitive and an emotional elements. Work is no longer characterized by routine tasks, standardized procedures with a set of clear cut when-then rules and quality criteria. To many managers leaving finding solutions to ever changing problems feels irresponsible and risky. For many a hands on approach where they are directly feels like the only responsible way to function in our high speed and very complex world. Leaving it up to their in part unexperienced teams raises not completely anxiety having to do with the sense of a loss of control.

The type of anxiety many leaders experience in these situations is a result of a very real dilemma: Trusting means relinquishing control. The higher the stakes the more difficult it becomes to deal with anxiety based in a loss of control . And this is a result of a very real dilemma: Trusting means relinquishing control. The higher the stakes the more difficult it becomes to deal with the loss of control and the ensuing anxiety.

At the same time many leaders feel they have no choice.. The higher paced their work is, the more complex and specialized the tasks at hand the less functional their hands on approach. They in other words must let their employees work independently. They must relinquish control.

Trust-Based Leadership and the Leap of Faith

People often associate trust with a "leap of faith". In the skate boarding community theleap of faithis the name of a 6 meter jump from a staircase in an American high school in California. This jump is known as one of the most difficult jumps in the world. No one has managed it so far without getting seriously injured.

Managers risk a lot when base their trust on a leap of faith. If employees don't deliver the costs may be high – from financial losses, to legal consequences, job opportunities and reputational damages. But there are not only the possible and very real practical costs to consider. The emotional costs might end up being very high even if employees are in fact up to the task, delivery high quality results.

Trust based on a leap of faith is very likely to end in double binds that are emotionally damaging and absolutely toxic when it comes to intrinsic motivation.

The term "double binds" is used to describe a situation that is emotionally damaging and absolutely toxic when it comes to intrinsic motivation. Double bindsis a term used in psychology to describe situations of dependence when those in the “dependent” party is constantly bombarded with contradictory messages and expectation. Let us take a look at a typical example. Let us imagine an employee who is continually confronted with the expectation that he or she take the initiative, takes on the responsibility of making decisions and finding his or her own solutions to problems and challenges as the arise. And now imagine this very same employee is periodically put down for making the wrong decisions because she is making decisions that are different from what her supervisor would have made in her situation.

As a result he is given the feeling he is not up to the task and every decision he does make feels like an incalculable risk. What leaders are then saying is basically:"I expect you to take responsibility for dealing with all the challenges of your work on your own although I don't really think you have what it takes to get the job done."

At times the message even seems to read as follows: " Deal with the challenges of your job as you see fit but also as I see fit even thought I can't really tell you how that would be since it is your area of expertise and not mine. " The invitation to take the initiative in finding solutions then feels like a trap. It might go well one or two times. In the long run you are bound to lose.

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In the long run everybody loses. Even driven, engaged and performance oriented employees will eventually begin to lose their self-confidence and their motivation. Sadly this is a pattern I have observed many times. And tragically it often occurs without any harmful intentions. It is simply a consequence of the fundamental dilemma of trust-based leadership.

Trust and Double Contingency

Trust has to do with a phenomenon described in Luhmann's systems theory as double contingency. Imagine you were to meet a complete stranger in the middle on a deserted street in a crisis situation in which you needed help. You of course wouldn’t know if he is trustworthy or not. Hence the situation is contingent. If he is trustworthy it might be a good idea to reveal your vulnerability and ask for help. If not he might take advantage of your situation. Systems theorists speak of double contingency because my for the stranger the situation is also contingent. Perhaps I am not trustworthy and my plea for help is part of a scam. Neither of the involved parties has a well-founded basis for trusting the other person. In many ways our lives consist of a series of events in which we are constantly confronted by the double contingency of social interaction. No matter how well I know a person, no matter how much we have been together every situation is in some ways new and it always takes at least a very small leap of faith to place one’s well-being into the hands of another human being. So how then to people manage to build trust? Why are people not constantly suffering from the emotional destress of double contingency?

Trust that has a healthy foundation is not based on a leap of faith, at least not primarily . Rather it based on a process built on both cognitive and emotional pillars. “What?!“, you might be thinking. Building trust on cognitive and emotional pillars might sound very similar to control. And hadn’t we already established that control is detrimental to intrinsic motivation and juxtaposed to trust? Are we moving in circles here?

No. We are coming to a crucial distinction for trust-based leadership: Understanding the difference between control and what it takes to create an environment in which trust can grow and become a stable foundation for cooperating and facing challenges together.

Building Trust means Building Bridges

What managers and employees need are not fear-inducing leaps of faith. They need bridges, bridges that help them overcome the gaps both between what they know and don't know and between their expectations and the abilities of their employees.

When building these bridges leaders are well advised to take both the specifics of their situation and the of their individual needs, trust disposition and personality into account. Willpower and determination are not well chosen ingredients for building trust. It is not really possible to summon all one’s strength, grip one’s teeth together and start trusting someone. What it takes is looking carefully at what the specific situation and your very individual needs as a person and as a leader require. Then think about what leadership tools and practices, what routines and structures you can develop and implement in order to give both yourself and your team just that. You don’t want to be building wobbly suspension bridges. You want solid bridges designed to function stably in the very specific landscape in which you are operating.

Understanding the Difference between Control and Transparency

Key to building trust is transparency. In terms of leadership psychology quality transparency is a tricky issue. Transparency can quickly be interpreted as a sign of lack of trust and as a form of control. So what exactly is the difference between transparency and control? And how can leadership practices, tools and routines be implemented that allow for a high degree of transparency without making employees feel controlled, triggering the downward spiral of mistrust and demotivation?

One key component is placing the focus on the content not the person. Transparency is not about control people. It is also not about determining who does what, when, how and with whom.

This is toxic to intrinsic motivation.Rather it is about assuring the information available to the people who need it, when the need it in order to make qualified decisions about when they do what with whom and how. It is about giving people what the need to coordinate themselves of their own accord. And it is about giving leaders what they need to jump in and help make necessary adjustments without stopping or slowing down a moving train. When thinking of about the difference between tools and practices implemented to increase transparency it is important to note that it will never be possible to completely separate the content from the person. All the more important to pay attention to the mindset with which these tools and practices are implemented.

Building Trust- a Question of Mindset

No matter how good your leadership practices and routines, you will never succeed in creating a culture of trust without the right mindset. Being aware of what mindset you engage with your employees is and what messages you convey in your dialogs is one of the most fundamental cornerstones of trust-based leadership. If in a mindset conducive to trust you enter into the dialogs with your employees expecting to hear success stories. In such a mindset you don’t see check-ins and updates not as occasions for keeping my employees on track and exerting pressure. Rather you experience them as opportunities for acknowledge achievements and engaging in a mutually enriching dialog about goals, quality criteria and collaboratively developing strategies for dealing with challenges.

In a trust-building mindset you will not be judging the quality of work results but rather interested in understanding the work process, engaging them in an ongoing dialog about goals, quality criteria and strategies for achieving these. The contribution of such ongoing dialogs can – if characterized by mutual respect and appreciation – to the trust-building process is immense.

You will be creating team culture in which problems are openly addressed in a timely manner. Problems and continually changing challenges rather than inducing stress and giving rise to conflicts will come to be seen as a normal part of work life. More and more your employees will begin to rely on you, each other and their own self-efficacy.

Every single time a challenge or crisis leads to a blame game you are eroding the foundations of trust. Every single time you manage to shoulder challenges or crisis in a collaborative effort you are building trust.

When mistakes occur, your employees fail to meet deadlines or fulfill requirements, your primary concern should not be finding out who is to blame.. Your first and primary focus should be on understanding the perspectives and explanations of my employees and what they see as plausible solutions. Acting as a partner ready to help and support them in finding solutions instead of spewing accusations and threatening consequences you will be building a cultur of solidarity based on shared responsibility. When challenges emerge I intensify the degree of my engagement. Showing strength and loyalty in these situations will enhance the trust of my employees in my creating deep and long term commitments.

The mindset still common to so many supervisor-employee relationship ofjudgment and controlis replaced by a mindset of shared responsibility and collaborative effort.This mindset is embedded in a continual and open dialog about quality criteria, the work process and overriding goals.

Trust-Based Leadership - More than a Question of Mindset

Building trust is, however, not only a question of mindset. It is also about using transparency to facilitate accountability in terms of

  • Goals and quality criteria
  • Work processes and operative challenges
  • The quality of deliverables and products

Implementing leadership tools and practices that assuring transparency in all three of these areas is not about top-down command and control mechanisms. It is about assuring both lateral and vertical transparency as a prerequisite for collaborative decision making, individual accountability and autonomy. It is also the foundation for trust built not on a leap of faith but much to the contrary on an ongoing dialog assuring a differentiated understanding of mutual expectations as well as in part shared and in part differing perspective. The agile world offers a rich fundus of tools and practices design to create precisely this type of both lateral and vertical transparency with as little overhead as possible – a topic, however, for another blog….

The Low-Performer Syndrome – Tackling the Problem by the Roots

Every executive is confronted with the low-performer syndrome: Employees that are unreliable, deliver low-quality results and seem to do only as much as is absolutely necessary. I hear about these low-performers in my coaching and in my training and in see them regularly in my consulting work. So how can you deal with employees that seem to do only the bare minimum?

Usually my conversations about low-performers begin with my coaches and trainees telling me that they have already tried everything: Constructive feedback, admonitions and moral appeals all of which proved to be ineffective. Then we start to dig deeper. Our focus is the individual employee, what his individual strengths and weaknesses are, what drives and motivates him, what his individual wishes and needs are. We then turn our attention, often in great detail, to the conversations my coaches or trainees are having with these low-performers. What effects these conversations have depends on the mindset we are conducting them in but also about the words we choosing, the questions we are asking and how we are presenting our own expectations and standpoints.

If there is still no notable improvement If after repeated conversations there is no notable improvement in the quality of their work it is time to change your mindset. You remember how even animals react to being treated unfairly? Reciprocity is a very fundamental human value and letting low-performers pass under the radar might at time seem easier than escalation and confrontation. It will, however, affect the motivation and trust of other team member. In these contexts it is essential to develop pragmatic alternatives. Depending on your organizational context they can range from redefining the position and salary of the employee to relocating him to an different team or department. Although drastic in the long run the costs are usually lower than endless conversations and continually compensating the quality of the work of low-performers.

I do, however, highly recommend only taking these steps once you have gone through the process of digging deeper and given your employees a real and genuine chance to develop and improve. My experience is that more often than not the effort pays off. Even though it is an investment and a process the right mentorship most “low-performers” do become more engaged and start delivering better quality results with. Moreover you are also showing the rest of the team that each and every team member really does counts, deserves a chance and is treated fairly….if willing to respect the principle of reciprocity.

A Note of Caution

Time and time again I see leaders, who are convinced they have already tried everything, are either unaware of the double binds they convey or of the potential of mentorship. When dealing with difficult employees it is important to stay engaged and keep a dialog going.

If the usual measures don't bring any improvement the first step is always to find time for an open discussion with a genuine interest in understanding the individual drives, inhibitions and issues of this specific employee. How does he explain the quality of his work? What are his ideas and suggestions as to how an improvement could be achieved?

It is important to remember that real change is difficult. With strategies that make sense and are accommodated to the specific needs, characteristics and abilities of my employees you more often than not can facilitate a positive development. This is what it means to live the role of a leader as a facilitator and mentor and to build trust. If all dialogs and agreements remain without effect the only sensible and responsible thing left to do is to change my mindset and choose a different strategy. This too is an important part of trust-based leadership.

Transparency and the Triangle of Trust

When thinking about transparency the focus is usually and understandably primarily placed on the work process and the quality of deliverables and products. When thinking about trust-based leadership and trust-building mechanisms transparency is, however, not enough. Trust-based leaderships means sowing the seeds for working relationships based on mutual respect and understanding and this also has emotional components. When talking about how to facilitate a solid foundation for trust based relationships I like to use the idea of a triangle of trust. The triangle of trust has three dimensions each represented by one corner of the triangle. One of these is transparency. Creating an environment of trust means assuring both vertical and lateral transparency concerning goals and quality criteria, the work process and the quality of deliverables and products. This type of transparency is embedded in on ongoing dialog and leadership practices and routines institutionalizing these dialogs as part of the team culture. As mentioned when it comes to tools and practices for institutionalizing a transparency and dialogs characterized by respect, shared responsibility and solution-orientation the agile world has a lot to offer. So what else is needed? The Triangle of the Trust is based on:

  • transparency concerning goals, quality criteria, the work process, the quality of deliverables and products
  • coherence between what is said, how it is said and behavior
  • “Vertrautheit”, meaning a sense of familiarity and intimacy

Coherence is essential for the development of trust. Only if what I say and how I say it are coherent with what I dowill people trust me. Leaders are constantly confronted with situations in which they have to make tough decisions. This means finding a balance between in part conflicting goals and interests, re-aligning priorities and at time even suspending or letting go of certain ideals and principles. Faced with these types of dilemmas it is easy to appear inconsistent. Inconsistency is, however, toxic for relationships built on trust. Trust-based leadership means finding time to check in with yourself. Only if you are aware of how you are resolving the conflicts inherent to decision making will you be able to convey them with the clarity and consistency need to build trust. Trust-based leadership is, however, also about facilitation collaborative decision making processes in which you help you team members understand their individual and in part differing perspective on these dilemmas. Relationships built on trust requires understanding and respecting the differences in perspective and how the effect priorities, decisions and our daily behavior.

Building trust is, however, not only about understanding differing perspectives it also has an emotional component closely related to familiarity and intimacy. In German there is the familiarity is called “Vertrautheit”, which is of similar to the German word for trust “Vertrauen”. It is a scientifically proven fact, that it is easier for us to trust people we perceive as being similar to us. If they have a similar manner of dressing and talking they feel predictable and we – mostly unconsciously and sometimes erroneously – assume that they share our values. The unfamiliar is, in contrast, always to some extent threatening. Our brains have a tendency to fill the unknown, all the little "black boxes" in our interpersonal relationships with assumptions. And when tensions and conflicts arise these assumptions lead to insecurities, doubts, fears and stigmatization – all of which is an excellent foundation for the development of a downward spiral of mistrust.

Trust-based leadership means creating contexts in which the personal relationships can be intensified, similarities can be discovered and differences seen as interesting and enriching rather than threatening. Leaders are well advised to design team events and contexts that provide space and time team members to get to know each other on a more personal level. These sort of less formal get togethers provide team members with opportunities for registering all sorts of social clues - verbal and nonverbal – that are a window into the value systems, cognitive landscapes and emotional worlds of their supervisors and colleagues. With the time you invest in these types of events you are laying the groundwork for a culture of mutual respect and trust. You are also providing your teams with the emotional backdrop they need for dealing constructively with high workloads, tensions and challenging situations.

Finding the Right Mindset, Practices and Routines

Trust-Based Leadership is based on a complex interplay of mindset, leadership practices and routines. All efforts to implement agile tools and practices are bound to fail without having laid the groundwork for cooperation based on trust. If you want help developing solutions tailored to your specific goals, situations and challenges let us know.

Learn more about my Leaderhip Training and my Leadership Coaching.

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