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How to Trust Your Team More (in 5 days)

joy at work leadership Feb 20, 2022

Written by Roxanne Brown

Imagine if you trusted everyone you work with to do everything you need them to do, in the way you need them to do it. Imagine how liberating that would be. Imagine what you could accomplish, what your team could accomplish. It’s all about Trust.

Trust is complicated. It feels like a moving target. It’s earned but can disappear. It’s intangible, yet you can detect when it’s there. When trust is strong, it can feel like a super-power.

Trust is an implicit agreement between people. Saying the words, “I trust you,” to someone can sometimes help but demonstrating trust through your actions supersedes what’s said. The inner voice responds to hearing the “I trust you” words in this way: “Noted. Now let me see what you do so I understand your definition of trust. Then I will decide whether or not you do trust me and how to reciprocate.” 

When something happens between people that’s unexpected by one or both parties in this implicit agreement, the instinct to self-protect kicks in. The natural tendency is to assume the worst in an attempt to make sense of it and be safe

Trust and Dependence

Trust is about your willingness to depend on others for success. Your willingness to be dependent on others is influenced by a lot of things: 

  • How risky the dependence is.
  • How much risk tolerance do you have personally.
  • How well the other person demonstrates they understand and respect this dependence.
  • How much their judgment is needed to perform the delegated responsibilities. 
  • How much variability and unpredictability are part of those responsibilities. 

Calculating how much we should depend on others for our success is something we do all the time.

As a leader, you need to trust your people to do the work they were hired to do. If you can’t, the cost of their employment with you outweighs the benefit of their work. This is not just a monetary cost, but other costs as well: Emotional drain, time loss, reduced room for new opportunities, an inhibiting impact on your team and a negative impact on your culture. Given these costs, developing ways to cultivate trust every day is worth a closer look.

Just as you must be willing to be dependent on your people for your success, likewise, your people need to trust you to the extent they’re dependent on you for success. Because you have the power in this relationship inherent to your position, your words and actions are closely monitored by your people. They understand that you can decide who to hire and fire. You also decide who they will be working with, who they will be working for, the goals and direction of the company, and what’s okay and not okay in how people treat each other. These decisions have a direct impact on their experience at work. Your people need to earn your trust and they do have some control over their work experience but they will be required to spend their limited energy resources to manage this experience when their values and self identity are in disharmony with your decisions.

“If you don’t trust your people, you make them untrustworthy.” - Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

It’s worth asking yourself how you demonstrate trust (and mistrust) and how others interpret and emulate your behaviors. It’s worth asking yourself how your willingness (and unwillingness) to trust has a ripple effect on your company and your company’s ability to achieve its purpose.

A Contemplation Exercise

To help you do this, below is a five-part exploration to contemplate what trust at work means to you. I've broken this into five days as a suggestion so that you give yourself space to think through your answers. After five days of contemplation, your answers will help you see the practices (policies, routines, etc.) that you can start doing to intentionally cultivate trust as part of your culture. It will become clearer what you can delegate and how to do that well. The exercise also helps you understand how to communicate what you need from your team.

Day 1: Exploring trust

1. How do your people know you trust them?

2. How do your people know you don’t trust them?

3. Why is it sometimes hard for you to trust your people?

Day 2: Diving in deeper 

4. Willingness to trust is about your willingness to depend on other people for your success. Thinking about the areas where you are most dependent on others, what are you depending on them to do? Why is that important to you? What would happen if they failed? What are the signs you're looking for that give you comfort? What are the signs you’re looking for that give you discomfort?

5. When you see the signs that bring you comfort, how do you respond? Is this response a sign for them that you trust them? (see your answer to question 2)

6. When you see the signs that bring you discomfort, how do you respond? Is this response a sign for them that you don’t trust them? (see your answer to question 3)

Day 3: Your concerns

7. What are you worried about? What is the worst-case scenario? What is the likelihood that the worst-case scenario will come true? If you were to accept that the worst-case scenario would come true, what one thing could you do to reduce or eliminate the possibility of the worst-case scenario?

Day 4: Your personal connection

8. Being dependent on others is most difficult when letting go of that responsibility is personal. That's because:

    • It represents your identity in some way
    • It makes you feel competent and accomplished
    • It makes you feel good about yourself
    • It’s something you feel you’ve mastered and deeply understand

How is this true for you? Given this, what responsibilities are difficult for you to let go of? How does this make it difficult for you to depend on others for this responsibility? What would make it less difficult for you?

9. Being dependent on others for something that’s personally difficult to let go of can lead to clinging behaviors:

    • Finding reasons not to let it go
    • Finding reasons why relying on someone else is a bad idea
    • Just doing the work rather than giving it to someone else

How is this true for you? How does this impact your work? How does this impact how satisfied you are with your day or your work in general?

10. For those people you are dependent on, their experience of your clinging behaviors can confuse them:

    • Inconsistently and unpredictably involving yourself in the work
    • Sudden interest in the person’s work
    • Sudden questions about their judgment
    • An unexpected requirement you impose that you present as something that should be obvious to them

How is this true for you? Do you feel justified in this behavior? If so, why? What could be done to reduce or eliminate your justification? If you were to imagine the tables were turned and your boss behaved this way with you, how would you feel? Why?

Day 5: Differentiating your involvement

Some things require your oversight, some things require your involvement, some things don’t require your oversight or involvement at all. Being clear about the difference for yourself and why can help your people understand your behavior and expectations. 

Of course, over time you may decide to make a shift: Some things may move from your involvement to your oversight because the situation has become less risky. Some things may move from no oversight or involvement of you at all to needing your involvement because the situation has become much more risky. This is okay, especially if you’re clear about why, can explain it to your people and are up front about what that means for them in terms of what they can expect of you and what you expect of them.

11. Some things are too risky to depend on others to do without your involvement (meaning, you must participate in some way before the work is considered done). What are those things? Why are they too risky to not involve you? What would need to happen to make your involvement unnecessary?

12. Some things are too risky to depend on others to do without your oversight. What are those things? Why are they too risky for you to not oversee? What would need to happen to make your oversight unnecessary?

13. Some things don’t require your involvement or oversight. What are those things? Why do you believe they are less risky than other things? (see your answers to questions 11 and 12) What would have to happen to make you believe that the situation is riskier than expected? What is in place today to reduce the likelihood of or prevent this from happening?

Now What

Taking a look at what you’ve contemplated, here are some actions you could take right now.

  • First, clean some things up. In your answers, you’ve likely discovered some obvious things that are confusing your people that just haven't occurred to you until now. All it would take to fix this is clarifying your expectations with them. Reach out to them and talk about it. For them, it will likely be a welcome relief.
  • Next, take a step back and create a list of the things that would make you happy to not be involved in anymore. Then rank them over three categories: 1. Hardest to easiest to delegate. 2. Most to least impact on your work satisfaction. 3. Greatest to smallest positive impact on your company. From here you could identify something easy and impactful to take action on and do this right away. You could make a plan to make progress on all of them over time. You could involve others in deciding what to delegate. 
  • For those things that are harder to let go of, imagine what delegating could free you to do instead, then think about how you could make progress on that. These things may take a bit longer for you to finally let go of, and that’s fine. Involving yourself in new things is a strategy for letting go of things that no longer need your involvement.

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.” - Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching 

Trust and delegation go together. Understanding what’s important to you and why will help you clarify that with your team, and help them understand your behavior. The less energy they have to spend worrying and interpreting your words and actions, the more they are free to focus on the work itself. Instead, they can spend that energy creating and bringing their talents to achieve your company’s purpose. Over time, your worries over delegating will dissipate as you intentionally cultivate this implicit agreement and feeling of trust.