Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

“I Trust You”

I sat down at the team meeting. It was my first day as the new PM for an already well-established product group with a strong engineering manager. 30 minutes in, with the simple stuff covered, the team started chewing on a particularly hard product design problem.

A junior engineer clearly had a strong idea for a solution, and was arguing his case well. But two more senior engineers had concerns about the long term implications of the suggestion, and were pushing back pretty hard.

It didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere, but then the eng manager paused and said:

“Ok, cool. I trust you.”

Within seconds, the team moved onto the next thing. I thought: wait, what? How did we go from an impasse to the next agenda item in 10 seconds flat?

Then I realized what was missing: I was waiting for the junior engineer to be overruled — something I’d seen time and time again. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the eng manager had used the discussion to give her feedback, stress test the junior engineer’s argument, and used three powerful words to propagate the expectation and the responsibility for the right outcome.


On a wall in Building 14 at Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ is a poster that says:

Trust = Goal Alignment + Competence

I’ve no idea who put it there, but I want to find them and buy them a beer.

Now, bear with me for a second — that’s a pretty geeky, technical way of defining trust, but it’s just so true.

When someone says ‘I trust you’, you’re not only telling someone we’re aligned, that we share goals, that we’re playing for the same team — you’re also conveying competence: that you’re good at your job, that I like working with you, that I know you’ll perform well.

I’ve been on the receiving end of senior people saying “I trust you”, and it feels great. It means I’ve been given both the power to affect change, and the responsibility to execute well.

So, what’s stopping us all saying ‘I trust you’ more often to the people we work with?

In my experience, it’s much easier once you’ve internalized these seven key principles:

1: Assume Good Intent

Hopefully you’re lucky enough to work in a place where the people around you are smart and motivated. But even if you don’t, few people come to work each day thinking ‘how can I screw this up for me and the folks around me?’.

People tend to value their careers and workplace reputations. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the right thing, but you can assume they are trying to do the right thing.

I’ve seen leaders tend toward micromanagement simply because they haven’t grasped the principle that most people have good intentions toward their work, the company, and, yes, you.

2: Feed People’s Rationality

What would happen if you asked 100 people “Do you make rational decisions?”. How many would say ‘no’? None. So if everyone believes they’re acting rationally, give them the benefit of the doubt: assume they’re operating based on facts or reason.

Rationality doesn’t occur in a vacuum — it thrives on facts and context. So as the product/people manager, it’s on you to ensure your team have as many facts and as much context as possible. Liberally share links to relevant news articles. Bring in industry or domain experts to speak to your team. Put your people on planes to meet your customers. Reserve time in your roadmap to explore your competitor’s products. Buy your team some books.

Focusing on providing facts and context means your rational team members have the tools to make good, independent, rational decisions — and that makes them much easier to trust.

3: Have Self-Confidence

People often fail to trust their team when they’re trying to ‘control for outcomes’. Generally, this is because they’re lacking self-confidence. They see a high personal cost to failure: a lower bonus, a missed promotion.

But this fear is generally unwarranted. Let’s assume your own manager trusts you. They know you’re trying to execute well. They want you to do well. They’ve read this quote:

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” — Jack Welch

That means your bosses are looking to you — the product/people manager — to grow the capabilities of your team. They’re expecting you to propagate trust down the organization. Not only do you deserve to have self-confidence, it’s demanded of you.

4: Failure Has Benefits

People learn as much — if not more — from failure as from success. In fact, in the long run, failure is critical to personal growth.

Even if you have doubts about someone’s ability to execute, internalizing that it’s OK for them to fail makes it much easier to say ‘I trust you’. If things go well you win. If they don’t, experience is gained and the team grows: you still win.

By saying ‘I trust you’, you’re being explicit that there’s a safety net. You’re creating an environment where people can feel good about any outcome. In that state, people will try harder because they have confidence that they can succeed or fail and be supported either way.

5: Set Clear Goals

If the equation of trust includes goal-alignment, then you have to set and agree on what those goals are. When you have clear goals, everyone knows what to work on — they’re able to independently determine how to have the most impact.

For me, setting clear goals is about two things — the metric and the expectation. The metric is the numeric, chartable way you measure progress. The expectation is the value you want that metric to have in the future. Getting tactical for a second, here’s a way of coalescing a team around a goal that’s worked very well for me in the past: a simple two-line chart.

Goals: Metrics and Expectations

This chart crisply states both components of a goal. The moving line unambiguously reports the value of the metric over time. The straight line clearly sets the expectation: where we started, were we need to be, whether we’re ahead or behind. Furthermore, plotting this chart is a forcing function for someone to write the canonical definition of the metric in software — there’s no room for ambiguity as to what you and your team are being judged on.

With tools like this, there can be no doubt that you and your team will come into goal-alignment. Of course, this technique assumes your metric is the right one — but that’s a whole other post in itself.

6: They Likely Know More Than You

As a product/people manager, you inevitably grow breadth at the expense of depth. While you might know more about the overall topography of your product, the folks on your team may know more about the details of what needs to get done, and ways to make it happen.

That inexperienced engineer who joined your team straight out of college six months ago might have a new technique they’ve read about on a blog, experience from a side project they can bring to bear, or the tenacity to prototype a hunch over a weekend.

Saying ‘I trust you’ is explicit acknowledgment that you don’t know everything and an encouragement to your team members to pursue their instincts.

7: “Trust, but verify”

We’ve all seen the unhealthy way to reduce risk: micromanagement. When you’re micromanaging, you’re assuming control. You think your experience gives you the right to interfere. But of course, this tactic torpedoes trust below the waterline. A better approach is to trust, but verify. In this model, you let people get on with it, but keep an eye out to ensure everyone’s still on-piste.

Verification can be subtle. If you have a goal chart like the one above, you can verify progress just by looking at it — you’re not having to overtly tap on anyone’s shoulder. There’s other tactics: you could talk to customers, you could test out changes in the product for yourself, you could subscribe to task notifications. You might even be able to see code getting committed.

Some people might say this kind of subtle verification is sneaky and underhand — that it’s not trust at all. I disagree. It’s simply good management. You’re not undermining trust; you’re strengthening it by avoiding the observer effect.


“I trust you”

You might think you’re saying this already.

In your head, you’re thinking: ‘of course my team know I trust them’.

But this isn’t something to leave to chance.

Tell your team in meetings. Tell your co-workers in 1-on-1’s. Have vigorous discussions about product and process, then say ‘I trust you’ again.

But you have to mean it. If you don’t feel comfortable saying ‘I trust you’ to someone — find out why not. Applying the principles above should make it much easier to fix your reluctance. It’ll make you a better leader/manager.

I’ve started to say ‘I trust you’ more and more, and I’ve started to hear people say it more frequently and more strongly. It feels great to say, but it means even more to hear.