For New Leaders: Trust is Everything (Trust me on this.)

Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

As a new leader, you’re apt to encounter some of the following scenarios:

1. You inherit a team. You have no idea how much supervision your team members prefer or require. You’re afraid of micromanaging them, but also worried you won’t give enough guidance.

2. Your team isn’t meshing together well. There’s a lot of backbiting and politicking and suspicion and finger-pointing. Everyone is looking for the “me” angle. People seem more invested in protecting their own interests than in collaborative work. You have no idea how to hit the reset button.

3. When you conduct 1:1’s with people, they’re coming to you with a polished presentation of their plans, updates on their latest successes, and reminders of their accomplishments. Why aren’t you hearing about their challenges and frustrations and failures?

4. You were promoted to leadership from a position that required execution. Now that you’re supervising those who are executing in the areas that you used to be responsible for, you’re not at all confident in their way of doing things. You find yourself interrupting them during meetings to question their ideas and insert your own.

What do all of these scenarios have in common? There’s a lack of trust.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Trust is the first principle of leadership, as far as I’m concerned. You need to give it, and you need to earn it. Think about any difficult interpersonal situation you’re facing at work. Can you identify the trust component? I can almost guarantee you it’s there. And once you find it, you’ll be on your way to solving the issue.

Getting to the root of the problem

I’ve been doing some mentoring of new and aspiring Chief Product Officers, and their questions so often revolve around matters of trust. How do you know how closely to manage your team? How can I communicate a difficult truth to my CEO? How can I improve the dynamics on our cross-functional teams and get everyone rowing the proverbial boat in the same direction?

This comes up so often, in fact, that I’ve developed a sort of go-to method to help people I’m mentoring answer these questions for themselves. First, I ask them to identify the trust dynamic that’s breaking down in the situation. If they envision the perfect scenario, who is enabling it by giving trust to whom? Then, I ask them why that’s not happening, and when they answer, I again ask why. I keep asking why until we get to the root of the problem.

Here’s an example. A VP of product at a startup told me she was having a hard time with a very needy product manager who worked under her. When she hired him, he seemed like a creative maverick who could confidently lead a team tasked with solving big problems. Six months into his tenure, he was requiring a lot of her time. He’d revealed himself to be someone who couldn’t make even a simple decision without seeking her guidance and approval. He’d even taken to sending her drafts of emails he’d written to other teams in the company and to outside partners for her to approve before he hit send. She desperately needed to reclaim her time. I asked her to identify the broken trust dynamics. She thought about it and came up with:

  • He didn’t trust himself to make decisions.
  • She no longer trusted him to competently run his team.

I suggested we start with the first bullet point, and I asked, “Why doesn’t he trust himself to make decisions?”

Answer: Because he’s afraid of being wrong.

Question: Why is he afraid of being wrong?

Answer: Because he believes I would be upset with him if he makes a mistake.

Question: Why would he believe that? (This one took a lot of digging.)

Answer: Because he hasn’t had the opportunity to make a mistake and find out that I would support him.

Question: Why?

Answer: Because he hasn’t taken any chances. He’s always clearing decisions with me.

Question: Why?

Answer: Because when he first started, he had a big idea he was gung-ho to test and I shot it down without letting him test it.

BINGO. The relationship got off to a terrible start. The manager set a precedent that experimentation and good, learning-focused failure was not tolerable. The manager clipped his wings by not displaying trust.

So, the real problem is not that the product manager doesn’t trust himself. The problem is that the product manager cannot trust his VP to be supportive of experimentation, independent thought, and taking some shots that might fail.

The big questions now are: What now? How do you repair broken trust? How can you hit the reset button?

Stay tuned. I’ll be addressing that very subject in my next post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about some of the situations you’ve faced or are facing and how trust plays into them!

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Abbie Moore

Empathetic leadership enthusiast, author, Lean Startup evangelist, COO at Petco Love, former CEO at Adopt-a-Pet.com.