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Trust is a Teeter Totter

by Kim Miller | April 15th, 2010

Trust is a teeter totter. In order to work, both parties must actively cooperate. If either one jumps off the teeter totter, the one at the other end goes down too, and quickly. So it is with trust. For a leader to succeed with his or her people, they must trust each other.

A leader must maintain the trust of their employees in order to keep them coming in and performing their best work. This is generally well understood. Without trust in the leadership of an organization, many employees will hold back effort, not wanting to invest all of their energy into an enterprise that may not pay off. Others will simply look for other places to go to work.

What is less well understood is the need for the trust that the leader must have in his or her people. Willing and capable people know when a leader is checking on them. An occasional query with a helpful suggestion is fine and usually appreciated. Too many queries at some point becomes the dreaded “micro-managing”.

So how does a leader avoid this lack of trust in their people? Set up and maintain periodic monitoring of business activity and results. This can be done in a variety of ways: monthly operations meetings, budget reviews, project planning sessions. Assign responsibility, including timelines for follow-up. Then butt out.

If you must, absolutely must check on progress, ask from a distance, figuratively. That is, send an email, leave a voice mail. Give the individual a chance to put together a complete response. Do not hover at a desk or an office door while asking a question and waiting for an immediate response. Once the response is received, consider it before reacting.

Are things going OK? Then give due credit and go elsewhere.

Is correction needed? Then be constructive. Offer a reasonable summary of the situation, and what you believe should be done. Then stop and ask if there is agreement or not. Do not attach blame or make personal comments. Focus on results, the things that you can see. Do not speculate on the reasons why.

In any event, you must back away again and give your people a chance to do their jobs without you looking over them. If you cannot do this, they will assume that you don’t trust them, and may jump off their end of the teeter totter.

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