An old joke from a stand-up comedian went something like this :
“ I was a para-trooper – not by choice. I was up in a plane, took a wrong turn, and slid out the bomb bay doors. The sergeant yelled after me, “pull the ripcord. The chute will open. There will be a truck down there waiting for you “…..“I pulled the ripcord, the chute didn’t open, and I said, ‘I bet that truck won’t be there either”….
Building trust with subordinates is a constant task for managers. Employees need to know that their bosses are backing what they do and can be relied upon to provide timely guidance and support. They also need to learn to be responsible for their work and to grow in independent judgment. The cumulative experiences that builds their professionalism usually involves making some mistakes and wrong turns from which they learn.
For the manager, this is a dilemma. The job (a delegated assignment or project) must be done and, hopefully, done well. In many cases, the boss knows the pitfalls and can guide the subordinate away from them. Yet, experience is the best teacher, and the boss knows that too much interference may destroy the sense of subordinate responsibility so necessary to confidence and success.
Trust, while brought about by action, is primarily a feeling. The subordinate who doesn’t feel trusted may become resentful and ceases growing in the job. Yet the manager who trusts too much may find that the work is not satisfactorily performed or that serious errors are made.
Here are some principles to help you gain – and maintain – an effective level of trust :
1. Focus on results, not on methods – The results are what count. Define objectives clearly. Give the initial guidance to your people regarding suggested methods and inform them of what methods are taboo, but leave them a wide range to determine their own directions towards a goal. While they may occasionally stumble, they’ll learn from the experience. Who knows? They may also discover some new and better methods.
2. Establish reasonable checkpoints in advance – Set up a schedule for regular reviews and feedback, such as weekly reports or meetings. Stick to the schedule, both in terms of subordinate requirements and your availability. Make sure that employees understand that the purpose of the reviews is not to criticize, but to share information. It’s important not to appear obsessive in your need for information.
3. Resist the temptation to “ Spot-Check” – Nobody likes a snoop. If the subordinate knows that you’ll be making surprise visits to ascertain that all is well, he or she will begin to feel persecuted. The inevitable consequence will be the withholding and the censoring of information. Nothing destroys trust so much as the feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder as you work.
4. Be available – Trust isn’t built by managerial abdication. Let subordinates know that you can be reached at any time for consultation and coaching. Respond to such contacts in a timely fashion. Give advice and help, but don’t make your subordinates decision for them. Ask them to come to you not with choices, but rather with questions and comments on directions they have decided to pursue.
5. Have contingency plans – The more critical the assignment and the less experienced the subordinate, the more necessary it is to have some contingency plans in case something goes wrong. Establish in advance the critical point in time or cost that may require you to take action in order to avoid a catastrophe. Make a subordinate aware of these points and work together so that they don’t become an issue. But if they do, take the appropriate action.
6. Above all, be trustworthy yourself – Support your people in both your words and your actions. Follow through on your commitments to your people. Provide them with full information related to their work and answer questions thoroughly. Use every available opportunity to show them that you care and you want them to succeed.
Caution: trust does not maintain itself. You’re bound to make mistakes. Simple errors in communications can easily be mis-interpreted as a lack of trust. If that happens, deal with the situation immediately by acknowledging the mistake, apologizing for it, and rectifying the error. It’ll prove your human, and can be trusted to do the right thing.
The final word: in a trusting work situation, our paratrooper in the joke at the beginning of this article might have said. “I packed my own chute and it didn’t work. I’ll use the reserve chute my boss has supplied and I know there’ll be a truck down there waiting for me.” The story would no longer be funny, but it would describe a constructive manager-subordinate relationship.