Regaining Trust?

  • Derek Roger

At the beginning of September I had the great pleasure and privilege of again being able to contribute a talk about my work to the annual HRINZ conference in Wellington. The theme for the conference this year was ‘Regaining the Trust’, but to regain trust it must once have existed. My experience is that in many cases there never has been any trust to regain. However, the problem is rarely company-wide; rather, there are teams in all companies where there is trust and others where there isn’t. My talk was called ‘Trust is Not a Mission Statement’, and the purpose of the title was to shift the source of the problem away from companies as a whole and to focus instead on individual team leaders and managers. Isn’t it your own experience that in most companies there will be two teams with the same demands, but one team is happy, enthusiastic and passionate while the other is miserable and underperforming? The solution is not to issue edicts about how we must all trust one another, but to find out how managers could change the way they behave. Management training is often focused on process, which is important, but managing people is quite different. Here are five easy pieces to help ensure that trust isn’t lost in the first place. 

The first principle is to assume that everyone on the team wants to do the best they can - I’ve yet to have anyone in a training group say that they didn’t want to. Yet all too often team leaders engage in micro-management, which by definition is a lack of trust. If people all want to do the best they can, mangers need to get out of the way and let them get on with it; management is a hands-off provision of direction, help and feedback. 

The second principle is that if you’re not prepared to be a counsellor, you shouldn’t be a manager. Who would you say are the people most likely to be able to understand, encourage and work with others? Counsellors. Counselling is used here as metaphorically rather than literally, but the metaphor applies because a manager’s job is to understand, encourage and work with people. Think ‘manager from heaven’ and ‘manager from hell’; the former will have counselling skills and the latter won’t. The bottom line is important, but the way to get there is by inspiring and motivating others. 

The third requirement for good management is derived directly from the core of our Challenge of Change Resilience Training programme: Don’t give anyone on your team anything to ruminate about. We define stress in the training as ruminating about emotional upset, and nothing else. The conventional idea that events are the cause of stress is just plain wrong. Events offer you something to ruminate about, but only if you choose to do so. In a team I worked with recently there was a performance issue around one team member, and the team leader happened to meet this person while walking to a meeting. All the team leader said was ‘there’s some good news and some bad news’, and went off to the meeting. What did the team member do? Ruminate about what the bad news might be, and become unhappy and less productive in the process. This particular team leader is in fact not a bad manager, but had inadvertently provided something to ruminate about. It transpired in subsequent Challenge of Change Dream Team Training that the team leader was an extravert with a bias towards impulsiveness, which explained exactly why be behaved the way he did - something to return to in another blog! 

In the Challenge of Change Resilience programme we spend some time applying the four steps in the programme to communicating more effectively, and the fourth principle requires de-personalising communication. Much of what is said in a work context ends up being taken personally, which we illustrate in a simple diagram which has you (manager) on one side and me (team member) together with my work on the other. Anything you then say about my work I’m going to mistakenly think is being said about me. There is a standard for all work, and as my manager your job is to evaluate my work, but you don’t evaluate me. Any behaviour that affects the team negatively needs to change, including attitudes. A team member with an ‘attitude problem’ needs to change it, but we’re not a collection of our attitudes, they’re just habits we’ve acquired and they can change. A counsellor-manager would take the person aside and acknowledge that the behaviour in question is just a habit they may not even be aware of, but which is affecting the team and therefore needs to change. The behaviour is described and the person given the opportunity to make changes, though with the important encouragement to come back if it proves difficult and professional help is needed. 

The final strategy is to ensure that managers don’t engage in ‘toxic achieving’. This is a measurable set of behaviours that we assess in Challenge of Change Profile, and which forms part of pre-training for the resilience programme. Toxic achievers make the motive to achieve toxic by adding in three ingredients: time pressure (expecting everything to be delivered yesterday), assuming that the means justifies the ends (expecting a result, no matter what the cost to anyone else), and becoming angry when a team members fails to deliver on time. Blaming cultures are predicated on a toxic achieving climate, and when managers are promoted on this basis the ethos of the organisation itself becomes toxic. Toxic achievers do deliver, but at the cost of unhappy, resentful teams where there is usually high staff turnover – productivity ends up being driven by fear.

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