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Thursday 18th April 2024

Building trust to multiply leadership

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Excellent leaders are multipliers — they are aware of their own strengths and limitations; their intention is to build these proven strengths in others and to empower them to take on the leadership for skills that they cannot provide directly.

To become a powerful multiplier means accepting two difficult truths:

  • You MUST give up some of your power and control
  • You MUST trust your own judgement and the judgement of others

To begin accepting these truths is to understand our own ability to trust ourselves and others.

If we survey the significant relationships in our lives, it’s often easy to pick out the defining characteristics of what is means for us to feel trusted and trusting, betrayed and doubted. By examining a few pairs of opposing examples we can quickly see the features and behaviours in common that define how trust works for us across a spectrum of success.

For me, one significant pairing comes from two experiences with managers:

Manager A was my champion, a sounding board for my ideas and my anxieties, an enthusiastic supporter of my efforts, giving me candid feedback whilst being willing to sponsor the risks I would take on our behalf.

Manager B appeared to be all of the above but a pattern emerged wherein the conversations we had in private would be erased in public, the decisions we made together would become his successes and my failures — and yet I have no recollection of receiving any disapproval from him, and certainly rarely heard the word ‘no’.

I can easily characterise these individuals as ‘excellent multiplier’ and ‘abuser of power’; the key learning from contrasting these experiences is that to form empowering trusting relationships — I have two essential needs: honesty and consistency. In the relationships where high trust is required, I commit to bringing these characteristics and I have developed ways of testing their existence, clarifying my need for them and ensuring that they are central to the work we do to maintain the relationship.

It’s important to make your own exploration of the trust in your relationships — one size definitely doesn’t fit all. Understand how it feels to trust another and to be trusted across different power dynamics — how does it work for you as a parent, as a child, as a partner, with a corporation, even with a pet….? You might well find that you are well able to accommodate inconsistency, that dishonesty is a necessary characteristic of some relationships that doesn’t impact the level of trust. You will find that patterns emerge that inform you about what makes for the most solid trusting relationships.

At the root of all of these relationships is the relationship that you have with yourself.

  • What does your process for getting comfortable with a decision look like?
  • How far and often are you able to compromise?
  • How entitled do you feel about getting what you want?
  • What thoughts and feelings about yourself do you have when you give away your power?

Have these conversations with yourself, with openness, compassion and absolute honesty — this is the only relationship available to you that can be free of judgement or expectation. You may well discover aspects that you want to change, but give yourself absolute permission to accept whatever you discover.

Techniques for building trust

Define boundaries.
With your understanding of the characteristics of strongly trusting relationships, develop an understanding of how they translate into behaviours and situations. These will be the boundaries that contain and protect you in these critical relationships.

When I work as a team leader, I set a clear boundary on individual 1:1s with my line reports. I understand that my need for consistent, frequent and detailed information doesn’t always match with my reports. In a recent role, I made the decision to buck the company ‘rule’ that everybody has a weekly 1:1 with their manager — I decided to give the choice over format and frequency to my reports. A risky choice: some people have a very low priority for self-development work and will avoid at all costs 1:1 conversations that expose them — but a 1:1 conversation is the most effective format for me to get detailed, two-way progress updates and to be aware of future challenges before they become blocking issues — as well as reassuring me that I am providing some value to my team.

I was careful to communicate my boundaries: ‘1:1s are your space to focus on your work and development, I’m giving you the responsibility for managing this. I will continue to need regular updates on projects and progress, so, as a team we will need to review our delivery processes and I’m very interested in your own ideas about how we can improve these. My working pattern is more flexible than yours, so I will commit to making time available to fit in with your schedule to give you the support you need to balance your team commitments and your own personal development.’

Of course, in the first week, everyone booked in a 1:1, but then the cadences changed and so did the behaviour. Our standups became shorter and more focussed — fewer instances of “I went to meetings and did stuff’ and more of ‘I’m focussed on X and I expect I’ll be moving on to Y by the end of the day’. Some individuals immediately scheduled a fixed, repeating timeslot whilst others would pop-up more randomly — ‘Have you got 10 minutes to talk about….?’ — and those 10 minutes almost always became significant productive discussions that had greater impact because of their timeliness and relevance. I could also feel people testing the boundary, and could feel my own comfort over the boundary being tested. One colleague would regularly apologise for not scheduling a 1:1, following up with a detailed progress update. I had one instance where I could sense avoidance of a problematic issue, a couple of weeks went by with very little more than operational conversation before I felt that my boundary was not being respected; sure enough, trouble was brewing and I scheduled a conversation that tackled the surface issue, but also explored the reasons why the level of trust in our relationship had resulted in avoidance of a difficult conversation.

When I reflect on this experiment, I feel proud of my team. I feel that we achieved a deep and consistent level of trust that clarified our commitments to each other without mandating how we delivered on them — it allowed each of us to play to our own strengths and preferences whilst prioritising our collective goals.

Seek continuous feedback
Relationships need continuous maintenance. Professional relationships entail a lower level of intimacy and a higher degree of emotional control than our personal relationships and this requires us to be more formal in the ways that we seek feedback about their quality and strength.

This is not to say that we should engage in surveys and forms but that we should be more targeted and strategic about the conversations we have.

In relation to the boundaries about trust that you understand, what are the emotions and behaviours that you will need to understand in others and that they will need to accommodate in you? Being able to have significant conversations about issues that sit at the boundary between intimate and professional relationships is a key indicator of high trust:

  • What does it look like when you are under pressure?
  • How will I know when you disagree with me?
  • How do you feel about receiving praise?
  • How will we talk about failure or bad news?

These conversations require both parties to expose the emotions and behaviours around critical collaborative relationships — achieving a greater understanding of how our relationship works and therefore how we can best maintain it.

Develop compassionate relationships
Another key distinction between professional and personal relationships lies in their purpose. Personal relationships enable us to ‘be’ something together — spouses, friends, siblings, enemies, rivals; whereas professional relationships are characterised more by what we ‘do’ together — collaborators, manager-employee, SLT, board.

Our ability to develop the things that we do together is greatly enhanced by cultivating an appropriate personal relationship underneath our professional one.

Committing to time and space to gain a deeper of understanding of each other as individual thinking and feeling people will only enhance how we can relate as human resources — our understanding of boundaries will keep the relationship safe and appropriate.

I’ve enjoyed being in teams that had simple but wonderful rituals that removed the formality of relationships:

  • Every Friday, we ate breakfast together from the local sandwich shop. There were no ‘rules’ on what conversation was about, we never set a time limit and we never formalised who would be the host and who the guests. Often we would talk about weekend plans, hear about family dramas and share office gossip but breakfast would almost always yield a conversation about our work as a team — the creativity and pace of decision making in these conversations was substantially different from our more formal team sessions.
  • I saw strong and long-lasting allegiances emerge from a weekly hour of online board games. In developing a genuine friendship from being team mates in games of Codenames, I watched a pair of engineers who were polar opposites in terms of their collaboration styles build subtle and intangible ways of communicating that led to them forging one of the most productive working partnerships I have ever seen.

We’re often inhibited from making spaces for these kinds of interactions — it is not seen as ‘work’; I would argue strongly that for work to happen, the environment must be correct — a large part of the Health and Safety industry understands and relies on this so we should extend our understanding to the emotional, as well as the physical environment.

Strongly communicated delegation
The final facet of developing our trust loops back to communication.
To be multipliers, to put our trust into practise, we must empower others to take the work forward in our stead.

Knowing what, when and how to delegate tasks and decisions is often a skill that comes with experience — it’s certainly a subject of criticism that I have encountered with new managers and the leaders of teams in crisis.

I’m coining the term ‘strongly communicated delegation’ here because I feel it conveys the distinction between giving a task away to someone else with no significant investment in the outcome and the leadership task of delivering outcomes through other people’s labour.

Delivering through others requires the ability to communicate:

  • the what — What is the desired outcome?
  • the why — What is the value to be delivered?
  • the when — What is the timeline?
  • the who — Who is impacted by the outcome? Who requires the value? Who needs to be kept informed about the timeline?

It also requires the sometimes Herculean effort NOT to communicate the how.

Being a trusting, multiplying leader requires us to construct the framework for the task to be completed, and empower the delegate to deliver on the details. We can achieve strong communication by first having our own clarity on the outcome — this becomes our vision for the task, so that we are ready to be challenged on alternatives, risks and problems we are not aware of and where our direct support will be required.

We can then bring our delegate into the vision, through the framework of four Ws, in a way that maximises their understanding of the outcome sought but that requires them to see the challenge as their own. Checking their understanding throughout ensures that our vision can take shape and grow, but that it doesn’t deviate at this earliest stage.

I’ve often seen advice to ask the delegate to ‘repeat back their understanding of the task’ — the principle here is sound, but it can be clunky in practise — asking an experienced CTO to repeat back the rationale for complying with a security audit is going to feel awkward for both, at best. Instead, I’ve found it more natural to probe the areas where I have the most concern, or where I have a strong preference for HOW the task should be completed, with questions:

  • Where do you see the highest risk in this?
  • Getting support from X feels really vital — how might we best involve her in this process?
  • There’s a big focus on seeing the results of this during this quarter — what changes in this and other projects might we need to make to achieve it?

The resulting discussion allows you both to check understanding and increase your own confidence.

The last part of strong communication here is to be explicit about the ongoing communication contract: what do you need to know about progress? What kind of data and metrics do you need? How often? Where will you want to be consulted about changes and where do you expect the delegate to use complete autonomy?

Again, expressing your preferences as opinions that can be challenged enables you both to negotiate the most effective contract that will be implemented.

Demonstrating strongly communicated delegation is the loudest signal that you have high trust in your team. It prevents the behaviours that characterise the two least trusting forms of manager:

The Seagull — who doesn’t adequately communicate or galvanise around the required outcomes and so is able to ‘swoop and poop’ on anything and everything they might have done differently.

The MicroManager — who is so inhibited from giving away control, and so unable to communicate their vision that they must continuously work alongside, derailing and duplicating effort as they go along.

The benefits of high trust organisations

Communicating trust is a highly tangible way of recognising value. When we empower people to act with creativity, responsibility and autonomy we are making a loud statement about how we see them and their achievements.

Enabling people to be in command of their own actions encourages them to feel a stronger sense of accountability since they are acting in response to their own choices. This increased accountability leads to a more holistic, systemic way of thinking — I must be accountable for my own actions, ergo I need to be in full understanding of the impacts and consequences of them on others.

Greater freedom of choice in how objectives can be achieved promotes more creativity in problem solving — individuals can take greater risks when they feel the safety of knowing that they will be supported in exploring ideas and receive honest and critically supportive feedback.

Lencioni puts Trust as the foundational concept of his functional team model. A lack of trust is the most insurmountable barrier to achieving true openness in an organisation where conflict and challenge are sought out as tools for diversifying thinking, strengthening and filtering ideas.

As I suggested at the beginning, the journey to becoming a highly trusting organisation can only be completed with highly trusting leaders — it is a sound investment to explore and develop high trust in all relationships and ensure that processes and systems empower the accountability and individual responsibility that this trust enables.

Building trust to multiply leadership was originally published in thinking@wearenotmachines on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Tuesday 9th April 2024

Building systemic thinking for more effective relationships

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