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Symbolic image for trust: a man catches a little girl

Something old something new …
Leadership is about trust!

Although we have indications for the 4th wave of Covid 19, the effect of vaccination seems to kick in and more and more employees are moving from working at home back to the office. Many of them still with mixed feelings.

They have enjoyed flexible working hours, much less time for commuting but still missed interactions with colleagues. The same applies to managers, however, as I came across recently, for some of them also other reasons might exist. Enjoying coffee in one of the great Vienna cafes I talked to a former colleague about her feelings of getting back to the office.

One of her comments got me to reflect. She said: "I am so happy that I have all my team back around me!” Maybe reading a little bit between the lines I asked for the why. After the usual explanations she finally also got to the point many managers seem having in their mind, when she mentioned: "… and by the way, now again I have a much better grip on what my staff is actually doing!" So I thought, well the old story about trust between managers and employees is still current in a modern setting.

It seems I was mistaken when assuming that the positive experience of so many employees working from home productively would increase the level of trust between them and their leaders.

This made me reflect about the perpetual importance of trust. In an employee manager relationship trust is the foundation irrespective of working in an office or from anywhere else. In the modern hybrid working environment settings leaders simply have to trust more in their employees than ever. This definitely can be a challenge for some early 20th century style managers.

Talking about trust requires looking at some of the fundamentals of human nature. Based on research findings and above all my personal experience let me share the following:

First, trust is a survival instinct! A child simply trusts its parents there is no other way for it to survive. Therefore, we all start our lives with crediting trust to other human beings. Unfortunately, that is being impacted by all the later also negative experiences in our lives.

Second, there are no fixed rules for trust! There is no principle of cause and effect. There is not one single behaviour that creates or destroys trust. However, there are many behaviours that build trust or create mistrust.

Third, trust always comes from two areas: Competence and Relationship! On the one hand you trust your doctor to prescribe the right medicine based on her medical knowledge. Or, inevitably we must trust the skills of any pilot or bus driver to safely manage the vehicle after we entered it. On the other hand, you ask your partner or best friend for advice not because he or she is an expert but because you believe they will only want the best for you.

Forth, there is a trust paradox: You must trust yourself to be able to trust others, and you cannot grant trust if you don't have it. No leader will be able to empower others if she or he does not have enough trust in own skills and competence. However, don't mix that up with self-confidence! There is a connection, but all along my professional career I came across many more overly self-confident than really competent leaders. As mentioned above we all start with a trust advance. Everybody will manage that account balance in one way or the other way in her or his life. Working on or with trust is a lifetime process. We all can make it like a self-fulfilling prophecy: starting with your advance and granting trust will get you into an upward spiral. The more you grant the more you will get back. Unfortunately, it also works the other way around. If you get into a spiral of mistrust, it only will pull you down.

For tracking or assessing your own trust status I have come across a good model developed by X. Frei and Anne Morriss (https://hbr.org/2020/05/begin-with-trust). They describe a triangle of logic, authenticity, and empathy. Logic means competence. People need confidence in the rigour of your ideas, the soundness of your judgement and your ability to deliver. Authenticity and empathy are elements in each relationship. People want access to the real you, all what you know, think, and feel. If you mistrust somebody you surely behave differently and will not be authentic! Empathy comes from our very basic human instincts, and this is where so many leaders have significant deficiencies. As X. Frei and Anne Morriss write: "If people think you care more about yourself then about others, they won't trust you enough to lead them!"

Last but not least for all managers: Trust is about productivity! It enables performance, engagement, and agile working! On the opposite mistrust is an energy vampire! There are studies that show 60% of an individual’s energy might be lost for thinking, strategies and behaviours related to mistrust.

Please comment or contact me with your thoughts and ideas about trust.

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