Management essentials: three ways for managers to build trust

If you want to succeed as a manager, you need to build relationships of trust with your team.

If they don’t trust you, nothing else matters: nothing you do will land right, the extra-mile won’t be run, the box won’t get thought outside of, no one will be saluting what you run up the flagpole … in short, creativity and motivation will drag sluggishly along the floor no matter how much cake you bring in on a Friday.

In fact, if our untrustworthy manager brought in cake on a Friday, what would you think?

You’d probably assume some sneaky ulterior motive, that they were trying to ingratiate themselves or bribe you with superficial treats … although obviously you’d still eat the cake, just to be polite.

If you’ve ever had a manager you didn’t trust, you won’t need much persuading on this point.

Saying you need trust in the team will seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious – and I’d agree with you, so imagine my surprise when someone once interrupted me to say:

We don’t have the luxury of building trusting relationships, we need people to get on with it and deliver

Someone on a management training course once (yes, seriously)

Hands up who wants to work for this person?

Thought not.

So, I am disappointed I need to do this, but I will start with three reasons why building trust is worthwhile, before going on to share three things you need to do to build trust in your teams.

First: it’s the right thing to do.

We are talking about working with people, and so there is necessarily an ethical angle and a non-negotiable need to treat them with respect.

This isn’t Grey’s Anatomy where the Attending gets to shout at the Interns as if it were a privilege of rank. Being the boss doesn’t give you the right to treat the people you manage as anything other than your social equals – just ask Ellen.

If you don’t think this is true, you should probably get a job that doesn’t involve working with people because this is an attitude that will severely limit your ability to deliver as a manager.

If there’s no trust, people won’t be honest about mistakes, they won’t grow and develop, they won’t be happy because the environment will feel risky and unpredictable.

The most able people will leave because they are the most likely to have options. If they can’t leave, they’ll nervously under-perform until they can get out. The poor ones will stay and eat the cake, but they won’t be staying for any other reason, and you will be left wondering why there’s an ever-lengthening list of needy poor-performers in your team.

Second, if you are very delivery-focused – and so perhaps less people-focused – then consider this as a way to improve performance.

Humans are not automatons where you can input a crystal clear command in one end and get a consistent quality output from the other; humans are irrational, emotional and moody. They misunderstand and misinterpret stuff all the time. The amount of effort they make, the number of risks they take, the confidence they have, goes up and down with no reference to any known algorithm.

The best way of getting this unpredictable emotional beast to deliver a quality performance is to have them on your side.

Most of the work we do isn’t easy to codify. We rely on goodwill and generous interpretations of the words and actions of those around us. To succeed, we need people to go above and beyond … if this weren’t so, the concept of “working to rule” wouldn’t be a thing.

We need people on our side.

This doesn’t mean we need to be soft on performance, it doesn’t mean we can’t be demanding, it doesn’t mean we can’t give negative feedback, it just means we do so from a position of trust – and here’s the rub, all the above works much more effectively when there’s trust!

Third, it helps you.

Not only is it the right thing to do, and the effective thing to do, but it’s also good for you!

You will know more stuff because you engage and listen. You will have a much deeper awareness of what’s going on in your team, you will understand your own thoughts better as you communicate more. You will also grow, because you will be pushed outside your comfort zone more often, you will hear more advice and feedback and challenge and support from your team – and your confidence, ideas and performance will be stronger for it.

So what can you do to build trust?

  1. Spend time with the people you manage

You must treat people as individuals and give them one-on-one time with you. This may be as little as an hour a month, or as much as an hour a week, or somewhere in between.

The meeting should be mainly them talking and you listening. They go first (it’s their meeting), and you only add your thoughts and agenda items at the end.

The meetings may overrun (especially at first), but that’s OK, just practice your active listening skills, asking questions to understand and not to direct the conversation.

Keep doing it, it will take time to build the relationship – and don’t cancel unless absolutely necessary (and don’t let them cancel!), don’t cut the meetings short as if you’re desperate to get away, and try not to move them around the calendar unless you have no choice.

In other words, the meetings come first because how you value these meetings reflects how you value that individual.

  1. Credit where credit’s due

Pay attention to what the people you manage do, not just what they deliver, but the effort they make and how they have contributed to the outcome: notice the thoroughness, the creativity, the attention to detail, the depth of analysis or whatever it is that they are bringing to the party.

Then give them credit – recognise it privately but also look for ways to give public recognition in a way that they are comfortable with – show that your objective is that they shine and get recognition for that.

  1. Understand it’s a professional relationship

I admit that I am squeezing about ten things into this third catch-all category, but it’s all clustered around the idea that even if you are also friends, or even if you don’t much like each other, you now have a professional relationship which demands certain behaviours.

All the manager’s actions (or inactions) are amplified and interpreted (often mis-interpreted) by those they manage. That’s part of the terrain the manager needs to get good at navigating by ensuring their actions are balanced and fair. It means no favouritsm and no gossip, it means being careful with humour (the people you have power over should never be the butt of your jokes), it means being consistent in your behaviours, and fair and transparent in your decisions.

But … human connections are between human beings, not between work units, and so to build trust, you also need to show your human side.

This means you can be honest and open about your own weaknesses, as long as they don’t undermine your credibility. You can express your doubts about company policy or the latest big idea, as long as you move on and find a way for you and your team to work with it in a positive way. You can talk about non-work things and let light in on your personal life, as long as you don’t stray into obvious minefields like your sex life, of the usual dodgy pair of religion and politics.

What you can’t do it make it about you: nothing undermines trust quite so quickly as someone who is self-obsessed or clearly driven by self-interest. If this is you, find a way to wrap your success up with the team’s success, so you only succeed when your team succeeds.

Consistency is key here.

Seth Godin and Simon Sinek talk a lot about the importance of “consistency” and they are absolutely right – you can’t trust what you can’t predict: so be true to your word, be fair and professional, and above all be consistent.

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