Why leadership is based on trust

Many of us had more than a dozen managers. Many were forgettable and some were awful. But those I admired took time to earn my trust. They wanted my best work, and they knew this was possible only if I could rely on them on a daily basis. This didn’t mean they’d do whatever I asked or yield to my opinions by default, but it did mean that their behavior was predictable. More often than not they were up front with me about their commitments, motivations, and expectations. I knew where I stood, what my and their roles were, and how much support was available from them for what I needed to do.

As a leader on a team, everything depends on what assumptions people can make of you. When you say “I will get this done by tomorrow” or “I will talk to Sally and get her to agree with this,” others will make silent calculations about the probability that what you say will be true. Over time, if you serve your team well, those odds should be very high. They will take you at your word and place their trust in you.

Although movies portray leadership as a high-drama activity—with heroes running into burning buildings or bravely fighting alone against hordes of enemies—real leadership is about very simple, practical things. Do what you say and say what you mean. Admit when you’re wrong. Enlist the opinions and ideas of others in decisions that impact them. If you can do these things more often than not, you will earn the trust of the people you work with. When a time comes where you must ask them to do something unpleasant or that they don’t agree with, their trust in you will make your leadership possible.

This implies that to be a good leader, you do not need to be the best programmer, planner, architect, communicator, joke teller, designer, or anything else. All that is required is that you make trust an important thing to cultivate, and go out of your way to share it with the people around you. Therefore, to be a good leader, you must learn how to find, build, earn, and grant trust to others—as well as learn how to cultivate trust in yourself.

Building and losing trust

Trust (n): Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person. “Trust is at the core of all meaningful relationships. Without trust there can be no giving, no bonding, no risk-taking.” — Terry Mizrahi, Director of ECCO (Education Center for Community Organizations)

As an experiment, I asked a sampling of acquaintances who they trust in their current places of work, and why. The answers were roughly the same: trust is earned by people who do their jobs well, are committed to the goals of the project, treat people fairly, behave consistently through tough times. Not a single person mentioned whether they liked these people or would want to invite them over for dinner. It seems that trust cuts beneath other personality traits. We can trust people we do not like or do not wish to spend time with.

Unlike other attributes about people, trust has little to do with personal preference. We don’t choose who to trust on the basis of superficial things. Instead, there is a deeper set of calculations we make about who we can depend on. If I asked you who you would trust to save your life in a dangerous situation, you would pick people very differently than if I asked you who you’d want to go to the movies with. There is no obligation for personal chemistry and reliability to be connected to each other in any way.

But to examine trust in the context of projects, we need to break down the concept into workable pieces. One simple unit of trust is a commitment. A commitment, or promise, is the simplest kind of contract between two people about something they both agree to do. Trust is built through commitment. When you make a new friend, and he tells you he’ll meet you somewhere, you take it on faith that he’ll be where he says, when he says. But if two or three times in a row he stands you up, and you end up watching a movie or standing in a club alone, your trust in him will decline. In effect, he’s broken his commitments to you. If it continues, your perception will change. You will no longer see him as reliable, and you will question your trust in him in matters of importance.

According to Watts S. Humphrey’s Managing the Software Process (Addison-Wesley Professional, 1989), one of the central elements of well-managed projects is the leader’s ability to commit to her work, and to work to meet her commitments. Humphrey believes this is so important that he precisely defined the elements of effective commitments. His list, with a few modifications, follows.

The elements of effective commitment

1. The person making the commitment does so willingly.
2. The commitment is not made lightly; that is, the work involved, the resources, and the schedule are carefully considered.
3. There is agreement between the parties on what is to be done, by whom, and when.
4. The commitment is openly and publicly stated.
5. The person responsible tries to meet the commitment, even if help is needed.
6. Prior to the committed date, if something changes that impacts either party relative to the commitment, advance notice is given and a new commitment is negotiated.

There are two things of particular interest here. First, commitments work in two ways. The two people involved are mutually committed. If Cornelius commits to Rupert that he will walk Rupert’s dog while he’s out of town, both parties are bound to respect the other’s interests. Cornelius should never have to travel the 25 city blocks to Rupert’s apartment, intending to walk Rover in Central Park, only to find Rupert lying on the couch watching television (“Oh, sorry. I meant to call you yesterday—my trip was canceled.”).

Each party’s trust is granted to the other in a trust exchange, and the expectation is that the trust will be respected—not violated or forgotten. Allowing someone to waste his time or money is a violation of trust. Second, we make commitments all the time. In every conversation we have in which we ask or are asked to do something, and agree to a timeline for it, we’re making a commitment. This includes simple statements such as, “Hey, I’ll call you after lunch” or “I’ll read that draft by tomorrow.” Two people may have different ideas on how serious the commitment is, but there is rarely any doubt that some kind of commitment has been made.

The less seriously we take our commitments to others, the greater the odds their trust in us will decline. There are different levels of commitment (e.g., if you forget to call your wife one afternoon, she won’t assume this means you want a divorce), but they all connect together and contribute to our perceptions of others’ trustworthiness. Trust is lost through inconsistent behavior. Getting back to projects, people fracture trust when they behave unpredictably. When someone consistently takes action without regard to her commitments, she creates waves of concern that disturb the team. Energy is taken away from people who have to work (or contend) with her. Instead of applying their energy toward completing work, they now have to expend energy calculating whether she will actually do what she says she will.

Contingency plans have to be devised, and levels of stress and doubt rise (“If Marla doesn’t get that code checked in by the end of today, we’re hosed.”). The more careless someone is with the responsibility she has, the larger the waves will be. One interesting (albeit painful) story about failed trust involves one of my former managers. I was a program manager working with five programmers and testers, and we got along well. Jake, the team lead, was my manager and had authority over me and several other PMs. The problem was Jake’s habit of changing his mind.

For example, he and I would discuss big decisions I was making that needed his support. We would come to quick agreement on the best approach. But then as soon as we entered a meeting where strong personalities or people with equal or more seniority than Jake disagreed with him, Jake, in dramatic fashion, would cave in (he did this about one-third of the time, but I never knew which third). He’d run the other way and agree with whatever decision was popular.

I remember standing at the whiteboard during meetings, halfway through explaining my plan A, when he’d agree to someone’s suggestion to go with plan B. I’d stop and stare at him, amazed that he could do this without feeling a thing. Had he really forgotten? Was he this much of a brown-noser? Was he unaware of what he was doing to me? Or was this weathervane-like behavior (following the wind of the room) really beyond his control? I didn’t have the skills then to sort it out, and I wasn’t savvy enough to talk to others about the behavior I experienced, so I suffered. My workouts at the gym were never so good.

Eventually, I discussed this behavior with him. I also documented decisions we’d made as soon as we made them (email is good for this), and I used them later on for reference. I even went so far as to prep him right before meetings. But all this only made for minor improvements (instead of supporting plan B, he’d just stay out of the discussion, but not help with plan A). I soon found myself working around him. I’d go out of my way to have things decided in meetings without him present.

By comparison, it was less work and more effective. This created other problems on our team (and with my relationship with Jake), but I was able to manage my areas and get things done. The sad thing was that Jake was smart and fun to work with. But because I couldn’t trust him, it didn’t matter. He would have been more useful as a manager if he were less smart, but twice as trustworthy. We certainly would have made better products, and I would have spent less energy managing him and more energy helping the team.

Make trust clear

The good managers I’ve had made trust explicit. They told me, flat out, that I had the authority to make decisions for my areas of responsibility, provided I had the support of my team. They (my managers) would identify specific things they were concerned about and ask me to check in with them on those points. They’d ask me what I needed from them, and we’d negotiate to see if they could provide it to me. Otherwise, they directed me to focus on making things happen, instead of seeking anyone else’s approval.

Imparting trust, the real meaning of delegation, is a powerful thing. Some sports have specific lingo around this kind of delegation of authority—for example, getting the “green light” in basketball. Years before I played basketball in high school, I played on Coach Rob Elkins’1 team at the Samuel Field Y, in Douglaston, New York. He pulled me aside one day during practice, which usually meant it was time for a reprimand. I’d been goofing off during practice, pulling down other players’ shorts so that they couldn’t get back on defense.

Rob and Eric from the Samuel Field Y in Douglaston, New York taught me so much more about coaching and managing than the high school and college basketball coaches I had later on. If you know these guys, please tell them to get in touch with me. When I sat down, I hung my head low, just in case. But he said nothing. We sat for long moments and watched the rest of the team scrimmage on the court. Finally, he said, “Scott, you have the green light.” I looked at him. “Green light?” I asked. “Yes” he replied, smiling, but not looking at me. “OK, Coach,” I said, and ran back out on the floor. Though few people ever hear these words, somehow all players know what they mean. Whereas players are normally obligated to shoot the ball only in accordance with whatever play the coach calls, the green light meant exemption. I could shoot the ball whenever I thought appropriate—I could supersede any play and exercise authority when I thought necessary.

A large amount of trust is imparted in telling a player something like this, which is precisely why most players go their entire career and never hear it. Coaches are generally terrified to give up any authority. Much like managers, they feel their power is tenuous. Standing on the sidelines (or sitting alone in a corner office) is a vulnerable place to be. Many managers and coaches fear what will happen if they grant their team additional freedoms. They forget that they can always adjust levels of trust; had I misused the trust Coach Elkins put in me, nothing prevented him from taking some of it back (change the green light to yellow).

More important, perhaps, is that the level of trust managers are afraid to give is often the precise amount that their team requires to actually follow their manager’s leadership. It’s safe to say I played harder for Coach Elkins than for any other coach I had. I instinctively felt that I now had a higher bar to live up to. I also worked with more intensity for managers who imparted similar amounts of trust in me than for those who did not. It wasn’t because I liked them (although that helped). It was because I was granted the space to thrive. It’s the transfer of trust that creates true empowerment because it gives people the room to work closer to their peak performance.

If maximum potential for success is your goal, you have to look for ways to give people green lights. It’s the manager’s job to create opportunities for her team, as well as help her team have the strength and preparation to take on those opportunities.

Trusting others

The larger an organization becomes, the more common it is to rely on granted power. There is greater fear among leaders about how to keep the masses working together (or perhaps, to prevent a revolution), and there is the belief that there isn’t time to engage everyone in the organization in a kind of discussion and communication that requires using earned authority. Even on small teams, I know some leaders who don’t believe they have the energy or time to engage all of their key contributors in this kind of leadership style.

The solution to this problem is another kind of trust, called delegation:trusting others to make decisions. Authority and trust often accumulate around different tasks or areas of knowledge. Joe might have the most authority when it comes to C++ objects, and Sally might be the best person for database work. Healthy, communicative teammates trust each other enough to know when someone else has more skill or a better perspective, and then solicit that person’s advice without fear of embarrassment or ridicule.

This is a real fear because engineering disciplines have ripe cultures of passive-aggressive behavior around asking for help (i.e., RTFM). Even in computer science departments in college, self-reliance is seen as a core competency, and students asking peers for help is often considered a sign of weakness. From a project perspective, Sally’s authority on database design is only as good as its application to the project. If she sits alone in her office, and no one enlists her authority to help solve problems, then Sally’s authority is squandered, or at best, limited to the tasks Sally is doing on her own.

A key responsibility of a project leader or manager is to model the delegation and sharing of knowledge for the entire team. If they do it right, the rest of the team will have a much easier time following along.