Dear Leaders: You’re Building The Wrong Thing

I read books and articles about leadership. I listen to podcasts that provide great interviews with technology leaders. I tend to learn by deconstructing new information. “Is her advice really one thing or can I break it into three topics?” “What is the foundation beneath his thought?” That’s how my mind works; I get all the way to the bottom and then gain insight as I build back up. As a Theory Y leader, I repeatedly find that at the root of all the great modern leadership advice is one simple thing: trust.

Having employee retention problems? They have doubts about the company, leaders, team, or product. Finding a company you can genuinely trust is uncommon; people will be reluctant to leave one.

Having trouble hiring? Your reputation may be tarnished in the marketplace. Your commitment to trust should start before you hire someone.

Having intra-team concerns? Inter-team discord? There is a lack of understanding between them. Build bridges.

Customers causing you headaches? You haven’t built up any forbearance on their part. Customers want you to do things correctly, of course, but most will understand if you’re continually honest about any mistakes. They know you’re imperfect, just like they are.

Trust is the panacea for all that and more, but like anything so powerful, it is difficult to find and use.

I define trust as the belief than another party will consider your needs at least as much as their own.

How To Build Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

- Ernest Hemingway (paraphrased)

You can’t realistically expect a colleague to trust you upon first meeting. There’s too much risk of the unknown, so you have to build up the trust over time. There are a myriad of small (and some big) things that you can do to build trust. This is a fairly short introduction to the topic, intended mainly to get you started thinking. Future articles will look at some of these areas in more depth.

Compensation is perhaps the most obvious issue. Pay people fairly. Period. Whatever you think you might save by negotiating a bit will be less than the costs of backfilling the position if that person finds out they are underpaid and leaves. Pay people equally. If two people are doing the same job, they should be paid the same amount. Their past experience, or any other factor, doesn’t particularly matter. What they do you for you in their current role does. If someone has the experience / ability to function in a more senior, and higher paid, role, then move them to that role. Stop negotiating with candidates. Since you’re paying people the same amount, you no longer need to do this. Unless the job function actually involves significant negotiating skills (purchasing team, maybe?), then you shouldn’t care how good someone is at it. Don’t tie their compensation to an irrelevant skill. Tell candidates the compensation for a role early in the process, either in the job listing or on the first phone call. Since you aren’t negotiating, there is nothing to hide. All of this saves a lot of time and engenders respect and lays the groundwork for trust.

Be transparent in as many areas as you can think of. Maintain a public calendar. Your team doesn’t understand everything you do as a leader, so don’t obscure it further. If there is a rare meeting that requires a hidden agenda, create a document with limited user access and link to it from the meeting invitation. Since your team may not completely understand what you do, explain what you’re working on. There is no reason you can’t participate in a daily standup or send a note to a shared messaging channel. Explain often the company’s priorities as well as the state of the company financials. This information rarely trickles down in a coherent manner.

Establish a culture of blameless failure. People will be less afraid to admit there is a problem if they know they won’t be yelled at for it. In fact, just don’t yell at all. You might gain a short term result, but you’ll pay the price in retention, respect, trust, etc. Also, the same negative thoughts will affect people overhearing you, even if they aren’t the target. The goal shouldn’t be to point an accusatory finger at one person, but to learn from failure so the team can learn how to prevent that failure from recurring. Blame isn’t all that interesting; it doesn’t really do anything for you. It’s focused on the past, but it’s more useful to consider the future, as that’s the only place you can make changes. Focus on teaching and improvement so that an employee doesn’t keep repeating mistakes. It should go without saying, but you have to mean it if you promise blameless failure! If you state it as a company / team value, and then start blaming people, trust from everyone will evaporate. Instantly.

Listen to team members’ suggestions and concerns. You don’t need to implement every suggestion, but consider them. Even if you immediately know an idea won’t work, hear the person out, as long as it’s on topic. It lets them (as well as others listening) feel psychologically safe to make suggestions in the future. You probably hired some of these people because they are experienced, perhaps more experienced than you! Take all concerns seriously, however. Even if something doesn’t bother you if is still a valid concern for the person who brought it up. Try to understand their viewpoint; they brought it up for a reason.

Have 1-on-1 meetings with each of your direct reports. Weekly. Never skip one unless one of you is away for an extended time. Maintain a set time each week, and reschedule only for impossibilities (a Monday meeting and a Monday holiday conflicting, for example). Limiting yourself from rescheduling freely will help get you in the habit of having the meeting regularly. Yes, these meetings are more important than almost any other business incident that will arise. It’s probably best not to schedule them all on one day, so you maintain some flexibility. The purpose of these meetings is not to collect status. Get to know the person. Personally! Ask about their life. Actually care about what they tell you. If they need to vent, make it a safe space for them to do so. Professionally, learn what they want to work on now and help them grow toward what they want to do in the future. Do what you can so that their actual work aligns with those goals as much as possible, so they become great at the work they love. There is also value in having regular 1-on-1s with peer managers; keeping the lines of communication open can stop misunderstanding before it starts.

If your team is dealing with a significant incident, your role is not to step in and fix the problem, it’s to enable them to fix the problem. This means providing resources, running interference with curious people from other teams, and being the conduit for status updates. Be a facilitator.

Create a culture of taking time off. It’s good for you to recharge, and it’s good for your team members to see that it is expected. When they come back, they’ll have more energy and ideas. When someone is on vacation, don’t contact them. Whatever it is can wait. Plan in advance and develop a team that shares information so there is no single point of failure and you avoid the problem of siloed knowledge in the first place.

Believe employees when they tell you they’re sick. Don’t make them come into the office. In fact, don’t let them come in to the office and infect others. This builds trust in two directions for the cost of one action! Both the resting employee and the people you’ve prevented from becoming needlessly sick will thank you. Don’t track sick time or combine it with vacation time into one PTO bucket. A general bucket is unfair to people who are sick more, as they’ll have fewer vacation days to use to recharge. Tracking sick time is unfair to people who are sick more (because they’ll hoard the time) and people who are sick less (because they end up with a perverse incentive to use that sick time when they aren’t really sick).

No jerks. No one is so valuable or so seemingly irreplaceable that they are worth having on your team if they are making the rest of the team uncomfortable. A cohesive team will always outperform the lone wolf. Your team needs to know you’ll keep them safe.

Develop a bias toward positive intent. This does not mean you suffer while someone is being a jerk or offensive! It does mean that short of that, you believe that a team member / peer team / customer has a reason for asking for the thing they asked for. They are far more likely to be asking for something they actually need than deliberately trying to annoy you. Help them understand if a request may be hard to fulfill immediately or they are asking rudely.

Lastly, you can be bold, and choose to trust them. Yes, you’re taking on a lot of risk all at once. But you’ll find out pretty quickly if that risk was justified or not. Nothing will gain trust more quickly than giving it freely first.

What You Get In Return

While you may think that the goal is to hire the best people, or create a great product, or build a fantastic company with an admirable culture, these are all by-products.

When you focus on building trust, the best people will come to you because word has gotten out that you’ll treat them fairly. Retention becomes easier when people don’t have to worry and are free to have ideas. Those people will be excited to help you build great products, including ones you couldn’t have dreamt up on your own.

Together, you’ll make the company fantastic. Teams who trust are teams who do great things.