Testing Trapeze, April 2016

TRUST is a word that often gets used without realizing its importance or weight. It is easy for someone to tell you “of course I trust you” or “I trust in your ability to see this project through”. A person’s ability to talk about trust is not always backed up by an ability to provide the promised trust. Telling someone you trust them to deliver when you give them an easy task which they have delivered on many times previously is pretty easy. History tells us that fulfillment of the delivery is a low risk proposition, but can you repeat that same sentiment when the stakes are high?

I had a number of possible topics for this article, I guess you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what I decided to write about. The reason I settled on this topic is worth relating. I work in a team that has a weekly gathering over coffee. Part work discussion, part social. It is a bonding get together that has been incredibly successful. A recent work meeting that we had all attended came up in discussion. Of all things discussed in the meeting a single comment resonated as “the highlight” and it was discussed with considerable passion and emotion. Why this one specific comment? Because the speaker’s (a manager) opening comment focused on personal consequences of not complying with a new process being rolled out. The comment completely overrode the positivity of the actual roll-out announcement. It communicated a clear lack of trust. Below is a summary of key team discussion conclusions about the lack of a trust culture:

  • It is not just a management issue; this attitude pushes down to others
  • Lack of management trust generates fear of failure
  • Lack of trust erodes a team’s ability to trust each other and work efficiently
  • Lack of trust undermines confidence, generates self-doubt and promotes inefficiency
  • Being assigned a solution rather than a problem removes buy-in and removes feedback opportunities
  • Lack of trust in the form of micromanagement kills innovation and self confidence
  • Lack of trust produces a fear of failure
  • Lack of trust is part of a “carrot and stick” approach with the emphasis clearly on the “stick”
  • Lack of trust creates an implied belief that people will seek to break process or give less than their best
  • Creates a culture of success by finding fault in others work in order to succeed

In an article published in the Huffington Post titled Managing Better: 7 Ways Leaders Say “I Don’t Trust You”, David Peck cites the following issues:

  • Nitpicking: Micro-editing, being hyper-vigilant about the details of their work, too frequent check-ins and telling, rather than asking, “better” ways to do what they are doing.
  • Delegating the “what” and the “how”: Saying, in effect, “This is what I need, and here’s how I need you to do it”, or “You should have done it this way”.
  • Delegating without sufficient context: Making a request or command to do something without explaining why or where it fits in to the bigger picture; “do this”.
  • Delegating responsibility, while actual authority to act resides too high up the chain: Many organizations say they empower their people, yet particularly in difficult times, the reverse is the tidal pull. Pulling too many decisions into committees or up the leadership chain is often the rule. You delegate, but don’t give responsibility for the final decisions related to what you’ve asked them to do.
  • Leading with the mindset that your people are never allowed to fail: However well-intentioned, if people are working at their best, sometimes they will fall down or fail. Intervening, overrehearsing or otherwise being heavy-handedly protective of them.
  • Overriding your people’s input or feedback: Requesting or taking input from your team then (apparently to them) ignoring it without explanation. Asking for feedback, then overriding it.
  • Keeping your people under wraps: Behaviors like bringing your people along with you to an important presentation or moment, and not having them actively participate. Not giving your people opportunities to showcase their work in more important settings.

The sources are separated by significant distance but there are many common themes between Peck’s list and the sentiments expressed in the team meeting. This is clearly not a problem that is limited to a handful of people in a single location. Why, as people, do we hold trust as such an important attribute when it is clear from the above that a real or perceived lack of trust is immensely damaging? I went hunting for a definition or explanation of trust, ending up (somewhat unexpectedly), settling on the following from Wikipedia:

… trust has several connotations. Definitions of trust typically refer to a situation characterized by the following aspects: One party (trustor) is willing to rely on the actions of another party (trustee); the situation is directed to the future. In addition, the trustor (voluntarily or forcedly) abandons control over the actions performed by the trustee. As a consequence, the trustor is uncertain about the outcome of the other’s actions; they can only develop and evaluate expectations. The uncertainty involves the risk of failure or harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave as desired.

Vladimir Ilych Lenine expresses this idea with the sentence “Trust is good, control is better”. 

I like the above description. It invokes several key themes:

  • Trustor and trustee
  • Willingness
  • Reliance
  • Voluntary or forced
  • Abandoning control
  • Uncertainty
  • Behavior expectations

I also like the final quote (which I will come back to). If you are wondering who Vladimir Ilych Lenine is, you might better know him as Lenin.

From the session responses and the trust rationale described, there is the expectation that trust transfers power and responsibility. It moves it from the trustor to the trustee. Why is this transition such an issue? Surely giving people responsibility and allowing them to create solutions is why we hire people? Part of the answer might be found in Dan Pink’s words. In his book, Drive – The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, he raises the idea of three motivational systems, which I’ll paraphrase as:

  • Motivation 1.0: These are your basic instincts. Humans have had these since the dawn of time. This is the drive to survive.
  • Motivation 2.0: The recognition that people respond to reward and punishment (controlled motivation). In the early 1900s Frederick Winslow Taylor was a notable contributor in this area. This approach hinges on rewarding desired behavior and punishing other, unwanted, behavior. This a command and control approach and appears to still be the predominant form of motivation used by managers. Recall that quote from Lenin? Control over trust, that is an example of motivation 2.0 thinking.
  • Motivation 3.0: Tapping into peoples’ intrinsic (autonomous) motivation, the desire to do a great job. Allowing people to utilize their sense of autonomy, allowing them to self-direct. This requires resisting the urge to control people.

Pink elaborates:

“Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice, … whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self.” 

 If you look at the list of observations gathered from teammates about the impacts of a lack of trust you can see they align with a rejection of motivation 2.0 principles and a desire to embrace motivation 3.0. There is a desire to be self-directing, autonomous achievers; engaged and fulfilled by the work.

So how did “we” get to a point where management are directing operations in a way that their people just do not relate and why have we stayed there so long? Tom DeMarco provides an interesting idea in his book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams:

“Consider the preparation we had for the task of management: We were judged to be good management material because we performed well as doers, as technicians and developers. That often involved organizing our resources into modular pieces, such as software routines, circuits, or other units of work … After years of reliance on these modular methods, small wonder that as newly promoted managers, we try to manage our human resources the same way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well.” 

The DeMarco observation highlights two problems;

  • Technical skill gets people to management rather than people skills;
  • Technical competency is built by owning low level detail but this is not ideal when managing people.

This is not an ideal foundation. The following discussion from Joan Lloyd about micro-managers helps to reinforce DeMarco’s views;

“These folks just can’t let go. Typically, they have worked their way up the ladder and they are familiar with the work that needs to get done. They find satisfaction in doing the work, so they like to do it themselves, or tell their employees exactly how to do it. Often, micromanagers are perfectionists, so they breathe down the necks of their employees, checking their work to see if they have completed it exactly like the manager would have done it.

Sometimes micromanagers are created because their boss is pressuring them for fast, specific results. This causes the manager to hover over their employees’ and frequently inquire about the progress of the project. If the manager’s boss is the punitive type, you can bet the manager will be micromanaging his or her employees, so no heads will roll”. 

If managers can’t let go, and that results in a “lack of trust” environment, do we just accept this and move on (“hey that’s the way it’s always been, it’s just the way it works”) or do we seek better and find ways to address the problems? The answer might lay within initiatives that provide managers with leadership skills. Why is this important? While the terms manager and leader are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Consider the following points of distinction from the Harvard Business Review:

Counting value vs Creating value. You’re probably counting value, not adding it, if you’re managing people. Only managers count value; some even reduce value by disabling those who add value. By contrast, leaders focus on creating value, saying: “I’d like you to handle A while I deal with B.” He or she generates value over and above that which the team creates, and is as much a value-creator as his or her followers are. Leading by example and leading by enabling people are the hallmarks of action-based leadership.

Circles of influence vs Circles of power. Just as managers have subordinates and leaders have followers, managers create circles of power while leaders create circles of influence. The quickest way to figure out which of the two you’re doing is to count the number of people outside your reporting hierarchy who come to you for advice. The more that do, the more likely it is that you are perceived to be a leader.

Leading people vs Managing work. Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control. 

There is a clear alignment between leadership and motivation 3.0. Is the transformation possible? I can’t see why it isn’t but it will take effort and persistence. This is a cultural transformation. It is the management specific “waterfall to agile” mindset change. Many of these fail because change is hard and old habits die hard but without this change a business risks either failing to reach full potential, or simply failing. Businesses that understand the imperative will surge forward as the trust shown by leaders engage employees and encourages them to do their best in safety.

In closing, from Tom DeMarco again:

“Most managers give themselves excellent grades on knowing when to trust their people and when not to. But in our experience, too many managers err on the side of mistrust. They follow the basic premise that their people may operate completely autonomously, as long as they operate correctly. This amounts to no autonomy at all. The only freedom that has any meaning is the freedom to proceed differently from the way your manager would have proceeded.”