How I started on the wrong footing as a leader

A new team member, Carey, joined my start-up team from a PHD program, after becoming tired of the bureaucracy and slow pace of change in academia. It was Carey’s first job outside of research. He was super smart, learned the role quickly, and most importantly, offered a perspective and mindset unlike the rest of us. Instead of constantly seeking new way of tackling problems like many of us, Carey focused his efforts on recording knowledge, standardizing processes, and bringing much needed stability in our chaotic environment.

I really valued Carey’s contributions, so you can guess the disappointment when I received a resignation letter from him five month into the job. During those five months, I never received a complaint, never heard any negative feedback, and never got word that the work was uninteresting.

So what went wrong? I got some insight from the exit interview notes, in which Carey complained about almost everything related to his work: The long hours; the chaotic environment; the lack of documentation and knowledge sharing; the unreasonable customers; and above all, my failure as a manager to listen and help improve Carey’s life at the company.

The whole thing shocked me. Here I was, thinking that the individual was all happy, and learn from HR that the team member hated their work, and me. I could have easily categorized the situation as a cultural misfit, blaming it on the fact that Carey has never worked outside of academia, and that this job was simply too different. To further support such a hypothesis, Carey didn’t share any common interest with the rest of the team, nor was he in the same age group as them. If we were back in high school, Carey wouldn’t have been friends with most of us. But thinking along these lines would have been misleading and I would have missed the point.

The truth is that Carey didn’t trust me enough to share any of his feelings. The responsibility fell on me, as a leader, to create an environment where Carey and others are comfortable sharing their thoughts. I failed to do that. I had failed to establish a trusting relationship with him, and establish myself as a leader. As result, Carey joined another team.

So if there’s one place to start, I’ve learned to start by building trust.

What are some resources that helped me better build trust?

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