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"Trust" as the currency of leadership and its role in middle management

Leaders are successful when they inspire change and build support for ambitious goals. But their efforts fall flat if they are not trusted; followers only follow leaders whom they trust. Trust determines whether people believe what you say and whether they are disposed to support, ignore, or contest your leadership. Most importantly, trust is required to get people to set aside fears and concerns in favor of potential organizational benefits (especially when they may not benefit at all). 

As the military demonstrates daily, trust enables people to make sacrifices for the greater good.

Trust is not the same as likeability. Leaders can be trusted but not necessarily liked. The key factor in being trusted is to be considered constructively dependable. 

Trust is built on followers’ perceptions of three qualities of the leader: 
  1. being true to your word; 
  2. competence, and 
  3. acting in accordance with shared values. 
The first quality implies that you are honest in what you say, that you do not attempt to mislead, and you do not commit to doing something that you don’t intend to do. 
Competence implies that you can accomplish what you say you will do. 
Acting in accord with shared values implies that you will act to achieve group goals, without taking shortcuts that violate shared values. It implies that you subordinate your behavior to the group’s culture. 

But how can you quantify and use "trust"?

One mental model around getting "trust" to work for you is to treat it like a Checking account. You should add trust analysis to how you make decisions, take actions, and run communications.  

How does a leader build trust?

  • Commitment

    What is your leadership purpose? Are you fully dedicated to it?
    Commitment towards a purpose is the primary driver of leadership trust. If one is to follow a leader with full commitment, there should be no doubt that the leader is also fully committed to the stated purpose.

  • Character

    The set of values that the leader lives by
    Not only is it important for followers to know that the leader is committed to a worthy purpose, they must also believe that the leader wants to pursue that purpose by playing according to the right set of values.
    What are your deeply held values that you will never compromise, no matter what?

  • Competence

    Be effective in getting things done
    When your subordinates see issues moving forward at a glacial speed or progress stop, there is a tendency to interpret it as leadership incompetence.
    Leaders who push things along and complete "important" ideas, earn the trust of their subordinates
    Do you have core competence in your chosen field? Does your level of expertise attract people to work on your team?

  • Consistency

    Consistency is about delivering on your commitments without fail.
    If you do what you say, and deliver what you promise, people will trust you. If you don’t, they won’t. Simple.
    Do you keep your word and deliver what you promise almost all the time, regardless of circumstances?

  • Centricity

    Finally, the focus of the boss’ actions and intentions determines his trust worthiness. Some bosses are self-centric and some are other-centric. Self-centric people care most about themselves, and strive hard to create a better future for themselves. In the words of Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, such people are Takers i.e. they take more from society than they give. Their worldview is one of self-preservation: “If I don’t take care of myself and maximize my own gain, no one else will.” Other-centric people are Givers i.e. they give more than they take from society. Their worldview is one of win-win: “If I take care of others, my interests will be taken care of automatically.” It is well documented through research that Givers enjoy a much higher level of trust from their subordinates than Takers; and that in the long run, Givers are more successful.

    Are you self-centric or other-centric? Are you a Giver or a Taker?

  • Caring

    There are two types of bosses in the world, ones that genuinely care for their people and others that don’t.
    If I know that my boss will always take care of my best interests, I will be more willing to give her my very best efforts and energy.
    If, on the other hand, I have a boss that is likely to throw me under the bus to save his own skin, I will use a big part of my energy in taking care of myself.

How does a leader spend trust?

  • Typically, when you say, “trust me”, you are relying on the bank of trust you have built up. If you are in a situation where you cannot openly discuss something that is confidential, you may need to rely on your bank of trust to ask for support.
  • Situations that require your people to follow your commandments when noone can predict their ourcomes require a strong Trust Bank.
  • Your trust balance will fall if information comes out that suggests you did not act as expected. This is because trust diminishes when your word is not reliable, you appear less competent, or you violate cultural norms.
How do things change for Middle Managers?

Middle Managers connect employees, line managers, etc. to Senior/Executive Management. They are effectively the layer that gets things done, which gets the Executive Management's ideas implemented.

If you are Executive Management, the only way for you to scale yourselves out is to empower your Middle Management. Let them make their mistakes. Let them learn from themselves. The concepts of Trust Bank apply to you as well. You need to have your Middle Managers' best interests in mind, and keeping their Trust Bank held high becomes your responsibility too. It is good for "your" Trust Bank.

If you have course-correction inputs for them, give them in private, not with their team around. That is a sure-shot way of depleting your Middle Manager's trust bank. No employee likes a Manager who gets overruled every now and then.

If you are Middle Management, you need to keep Executive Management on your side and never locking horns, because the fate of a lot of your deliveries and their impact is decided by them. If you don't come out as someone who knows what they are doing, your trust bank is next to zero. 

Trust is no longer what happens if we look eye to eye. Trust needs to be generated and maintained for the digital space. Despite all advances, challenges, and risks, trust will remain critical for human, institutional, and technological interaction. It is trust and data, which together make up the currency of the 21st century.


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