Let me share one of the open secrets of consultants: sometimes, a big part of our work relies merely on listening to people in the company and what they have to say. I routinely hear from CEOs and executives that the situation is “great” and that there are no issues regarding X. Then, I sit down to talk with some of the employees. That is the stage where I get torrents of valuable information. Think about it, I’m meeting someone for the first time, often in Zoom, and they disclose issues and problems they never voiced to their long time managers. That’s a telltale sign of lack of trust.
We know by now that a precept of effective culture is candor. Teams should be places where every member feels safe to speak up and voice concerns. Otherwise, you surely will be missing out on some of the extraordinary brainpower you’ve hired, and you run the risk of committing mistakes that were obvious to some of the people around you.
I’m a big believer in cultivating chutzpah—actively putting in the work to teach your team to speak their mind and poke holes in ideas. That’s impossible without trust and safety to enable it. People who are known for shooting the messenger tend to lose things in the mail.
If you can see some of your organization in the description above, you should start taking steps to improve your team’s trust. Below are some of the essential tactics to keep in mind when doing this. I’ve written about this general topic at length in my upcoming book, The Tech Executive Operating System. Subscribe below to get a free chapter and updates in the forthcoming weeks.
One surefire way to lose trust: your word not being worth anything. If you promise that you will take care of an issue only to drop the ball later, why should the team count on you the next time? If the team went into a few stressful weeks to meet a deadline you said will not happen again, and then a week later, they see that the roadmap is setting them up for exactly the same experience, can you blame them for being wary?
One of the eight traits that I track and assess with my clients is accountability. If they cannot trust you, there will be no trust (d’oh!). Becoming more accountable changes from one person to another. Some might have a problem with remembering everything and need a better system for tracking their commitments. Others should learn how to say “no” more often and promise fewer things.
Entire books and talks have been dedicated to the concept of good one-on-one meetings. Not to reiterate what you might know, I want to stress the importance of these specifically for building rapport and creating a trusting relationship with peers and teammates. This is another almost-magical power of regular one-on-ones: if you stick to them, listen, and share, good relationships form almost without meaning to.
Making these a priority will do you lots of good, and not just for trust, but it is a great way to start righting the situation. By making time for these consistently, no matter how busy you get, you will also practice being accountable.
Sometimes, there are actual issues. The team does not merely lack trust that has yet to be established. It has suffered a crisis that caused that trust to be broken. That is when you need to work to restore trust proactively, and that starts with helping them speak their minds and letting you know what troubles them.
This is not always straightforward, but I recommend starting with leveraging your one-on-ones to make sure that people talk. Like a muscle, the more they talk about things, the better they get at it and more accustomed to it. Have a good list of prompting questions to make conversations start, and avoid rushing to talk if there are silences. Some of my favorites:
- “What can we do to help you?”
- “What should I do less of?”
- “What has frustrated you in the last sprint?”
Learn to Accept Feedback
The other side of the coin is to be sure to take the feedback correctly once you’ve managed to solicit it. Dismissing what others are feeling or thinking is not likely to make them want to share again. The same goes for going into overprotective mode.
The good thing is that you don’t have to come up with a solution to whatever you hear on the spot. You don’t even have to agree with it yet. What you do need is to go through a simple routine procedure. Start by mirroring what you heard to ensure that you understood correctly. Then, accept the feedback and thank the other person for sharing. No “but”s allowed! Say “thank you.” Only then should you consider responding to the feedback. Other times, it’s completely acceptable to say you will have to think about it and get back to them. And do get back to them; you’ve learned the importance of being accountable, right?
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