Trusting people is not easy for any of us, but it may be particularly difficult for leaders.
Trust entails a degree of letting go that may feel uncomfortable for people used to being in charge. It also requires a fair amount of courage, since you never really know what other people are going to do — and in this case, what they do might very well reflect negatively on you.
In Part I of this two-part series, I wrote about four specific steps that organizational leaders can take to earn the trust of those they lead: Tell the truth, keep confidences, follow through, and have their backs. Those are all important, but in the end it comes down to this: If you really want people to trust you, you have to trust them first — and demonstrate that consistently by your actions.
I’ve spent enough of my career in toxic environments — characterized by cynicism, backbiting, passive-aggressive obstruction, and even open revolt — to know that trust is essential for any program, department, or organization to achieve its full potential.
Building trust requires accepting responsibility, even when it doesn't seem fair. It means letting go of your desire to control things and sometimes turning over the decision-making process to others. Workers who enjoy their supervisor’s trust feel liberated to pursue creative professional agendas, often achieving even beyond their own expectations. As trust filters down, it creates a more pleasant work environment, an atmosphere of collegiality and mutual support where all can thrive. That doesn’t mean there won’t be problems. It just means that, when a problem arises, people cope with it calmly and consensually rather than with bitter, factional finger-pointing.
Assuming you are the type of leader who wants to jump on the trust bandwagon, here is how to proceed.
Resist your inner control-freak. You may not think you have control issues, and perhaps you’re right. But in my experience, most leaders do — to some extent. The ability to exert control over your environment is probably one of the things that attracted you to leadership in the first place.
Last year, my colleague Marcia Ditmyer and I developed an assessment tool based on my 2010 essay "The Four Quadrants of Administrative Effectiveness." (Marcia is an administrator at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, by day, a psychometrician by night.) Basically, the Four Quadrants Assessment allows people to plot themselves on a graph in terms of how much control they like to have and how much responsibility they’re willing to take. We administered it for the first time in February, to about 120 participants at a large national conference for academic leaders.
The most surprising discovery for the majority of those folks: They are much more inclined to be controlling than they ever imagined.
The desire to control things — and people — is perhaps natural for engaged leaders, but it’s inimical to trust. Bright, talented, independent-minded, highly educated professionals don’t appreciate a "hovering" or "micromanaging" boss. They rightly view such behavior on your part as stemming from an essential lack of trust: If you feel the need to tell them what to do all the time, you must not trust them to do things right on their own.
Control-freakery will never lead to a healthy climate of trust.
Relinquish the reins. Letting go is easier said than done, but there are concrete steps you can take to loosen your grip. One effective strategy is to set up structures that make decision-making a group effort. That way, certain decisions are simply taken out of your hands, your urge to control notwithstanding.
A simple example is a departmental committee, on which ever the committee chair has no more or less say than anyone else. I’m frequently amazed, however, at the tendency of some chairs to insert themselves into this seemingly collegial, consensual process — either by pressuring people on the committee or handpicking members in order to get a desired result. I’ve also known leaders to override the committee’s recommendations when things didn’t turn out the way they wanted.
If any of that describes you, please stop. You’re doing untold damage to your unit and your colleagues. Acknowledge that, collectively, they are just as capable of making many decisions as you are, even if you don’t personally agree with their choices. Then back off and let them do their jobs.
A couple of caveats: First, for a committee structure to be as fair and equitable as possible, it must be inclusive. Anyone who has a stake in the decision should have a seat at the table, either directly or through representation.
Second, inevitably, there will be times when the final decision falls to you, as leader. In those cases, solicit as much advice as possible, without breaking any confidences, and then make the best decision possible for all concerned. When you can allow others to participate in the decision-making process, you certainly should. Be on the lookout for those opportunities to show faith in your colleagues’ judgment.
Policies, shmolicies. My least favorite type of leader is the one who consistently falls back on the policy manual when what’s really required is some good old-fashioned judgment. Even worse are the leaders who, with no written rule to fall back on, simply make up their own policy — sometimes on the spot.
Early in my career, I was in a department meeting where the chair read us the riot act. She had been wandering the halls and noticed some faculty members were not sitting in their offices during posted office hours. That was unacceptable, she insisted.
"But what if we have to go to the bathroom?," one of my colleagues rather timidly asked. Then, replied the chair, you should find a colleague who is not holding office hours and ask them to sit in your office while you go to the restroom.
The abject silliness of that dictate should be self-evident. We didn’t need anyone second-guessing our decision to go to the bathroom, and feeling like we weren’t trusted made us resentful and distrustful of our chair. (By the way, don’t be the kind of leader who roams the halls looking to see who is their offices.)
Of course there are legitimate policies that must be followed. And there are times when, as a leader, a policy manual can be your best friend, letting you off the hook for a decision that wasn’t yours to begin with. But in my experience, policies are rarely one-size-fits-all. True leadership requires difficult judgment calls. Which brings me to my last point:
Deflect praise, accept blame. Perhaps the best way to show your trust in — and regard for — those you lead is to ensure that they get the appropriate credit for their accomplishments. That might mean nominating them for awards, but it is often as simple as deflecting the praise that naturally comes your way, as leader, when your unit conspicuously succeeds.
Because that’s generally how it works: When the group performs well, and people notice, most of the credit immediately goes to the leader. Good leaders understand that such credit is never solely, and seldom even primarily, theirs. Instead, it belongs to the staff members who worked so hard to bring about those happy results. And good leaders are extremely vocal about saying so, to anyone who will listen — from their own superiors to the press.
On the other end of the spectrum, when things go south, the leader often bears the brunt of the criticism, whether or not he or she is personally responsible. Good leaders, initially at least, shoulder the blame without making excusing or pointing fingers. Later, perhaps, in the privacy of your office, you can have some very intense conversations with those who are actually to blame. But as a leader, your default response should be to take the hit.
Building trust requires accepting responsibility, even when it doesn’t seem fair. It means letting go of your desire to control things and sometimes turning over the decision-making process to others.
None of that is easy for the kind of leader who is deeply engaged and invested, but it is necessary. And in the long run, it will lead to a more functional, productive workplace — not to mention one where people actually like their jobs.
As the news cycle moves from its extensive coverage of the recent hurricanes to the latest crisis du jour, it is easy to forget that thousands of people are trying to put their lives back in order. The people in Texas are no longer front and center on our TV and computer screens; consequently, they may no longer be in the forefront of our consciousness.
But people's lives take longer than a news cycle to get back to normal after a catastrophe.
One such person comes to mind. Julia, a working mother of three, works hard and has a fairly good job but lives from paycheck to paycheck. She knows she should have money saved for emergencies; as she says, though, the children always need shoes and food, and it's difficult to save. As Hurricane Harvey approached, Julia’s uncle loaned her money to evacuate to a hotel on higher ground. She and her family were safe and had to stay longer than expected while electricity was restored to her home.
She is grateful that she and her family are safe. But the economic toll is profound. The storm affected her place of work, so she went a week without pay. This was no weeklong vacation, but it was at least as expensive. She still had to pay for car insurance, rent, and food. Julia is already just making it, but this storm will be another setback for her.
Since the news cycle has shifted to other areas, I hope we also will remember those in Florida, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico who face the difficult task of rebuilding their lives. The world has moved on to other problems, but I hope the generosity I see during acute American crises will continue.
This brings to me to a deeper question: Why do we give charity? Or, for that matter, what is charity?
Maybe we give because charity makes us feel good. Maybe friends and family ask us to give. Or maybe we do it because we grew up understanding that charity is the right thing to do. There are many reasons good people have been giving to Harvey, Irma, and Maria hurricane relief.
What drives us? Charity is a core pillar of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions. In their book The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, Karl Haden and Rob Jenkins discuss how exceptional leaders embrace and exemplify charity as one of the core virtues that motivate them.
Our English word charity derives from the Latin caritas, which literally means "love." Love has many meanings, dimensions, and connotations, from giving to those in need to eros, erotic love. Today, I want to concentrate on the “love of neighbor” aspect of love.
Giving to orphans, widows, or flood, earthquake, famine, or mass shooting victims comes under the auspices of “loving your neighbor.” We do not live in isolation but in communities: familial, neighborhood, social, religious, professional, national, and international. In differing degrees, we feel integrated in and obligated to our various communities. They are a part of us and we of them. They take care of us, and we desire to take care of them.
Lovingly helping your neighbor can make you feel good. But true charity is more than a feel-good experience. You feel good when you’ve taken your elderly neighbor to her eye appointment, volunteered at the local food pantry, or contributed to the Houston hurricane victims. That is good in and of itself, and it truly helps your neighbors. This charity is good and it is easy to act upon.
Yet, paradoxically, “loving your neighbor” can be more difficult the closer you get (e.g., when the neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking at 3:00 a.m., your neighbor has a completely different philosophy for coaching your daughter’s soccer team, or your elderly neighbor wants you to help her get to the grocery, foot doctor, and pharmacy after you take her to the eye doctor). These scenarios don’t make you feel quite so good about loving your neighbor. Yet love challenges us to rise to these more difficult occasions.
We live complicated, complex lives that require us to balance many different challenges, and honestly, sometimes all we can do is write a check. And that is good—very good.
The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders is based on a solid Aristotelian foundation, one that contends that the virtuous leader integrates virtues (such as charity) deeply into his or her individual human nature. From that flows action and, from this action, becomes character. That is, one actually remembers the people still trying to get their lives in order after the rest of the world’s attention has moved on from their stories. You, as the virtuous person and virtuous leader, act. You act charitably, because you are charitable.
As Haden and Jenkins explain, the individual virtues do not exist in a vacuum. The virtuous leader incorporates many of them. One such virtue is humility.
Humility is deflecting attention away from the self to others. We all can cite examples of people who have made such a big deal of their act of charity that the good deed is eclipsed by their self-aggrandizement. Yes, the people in need were helped, but the benefactor has done the deed for the sake of praise, not its inherent good. There is no humility here, nor is there true charity.
In the case of the forgotten hurricane victims, as a virtuous leader, do you quietly write a check? Humility is a wonderful virtue. Or, as a leader, do you write a check and announce that you've done so, hoping to motivate others? True leadership hopes to accomplish the best possible good. That allows your virtuous actions to have a multiplier effect and make the world a better place.
Either way—motivating others to act, or quietly writing a check—people like Julia, the forgotten working mother in Houston, appreciate your charity.
Michael Silveus, D.D.S., M.S.
Dr. Silveus is a Vice President of AAL and has a broad range of expertise in leadership development, institutional feasibility assessment and founding, accreditation, strategic planning, and faculty mentoring. He has worked in development and campus ministry, and provided care at dental clinics in underserved areas. He was on the original administrative team that founded the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School network. Dr. Silveus serves on many boards, including the Institute of Clinical Bioethics at St. Joseph’s University.