Nobody Trusts the Boss Completely
By Ken Chapman, Ph.D.
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Leaders who head off serious problems before they blow up in the company’s face are two steps ahead of the game. Their employers avoid needless expense or outright disaster and they themselves receive the recognition they deserve for stopping trouble in its tracks.
In practice, of course, it is never this easy. Everybody knows the importance of identifying problems early. But what is the trick to learning about them early? How do effective leaders find out what trouble is brewing? What are their warning systems?
All good leaders develop information networks and many develop a sixth sense for early signs of trouble. But by far the simplest and most effective way to find out about problems is to be told by a direct report. It is easy to get information when things are going well, people love to give the boss good news. But employees are never eager to tell their supervisors that something is just not working.
An employee’s reluctance to be candid is also about risk. While it is fairly easy to tell the boss that the machines sent over by engineering are not working properly, it is much harder to admit responsibility for the problem. And it is harder still, to point out the boss’ role in the problem. Even so, it is difficult to overstate the importance of convincing direct reports that it is safe to convey unpleasant messages—quickly! The sooner a problem is disclosed, diagnosed, and corrected, the better for the organization.
All organizations would function better with greater candor and openness. But candor can, at times, seem too much to hope for. Candor depends upon trust and in hierarchical organizations; establishing trust has some built in limitations which must be overcome.
The Limits of Trust and Candor
In a hierarchy, it is natural for people with less power to be cautious about disclosing mistakes, and failings, especially when the more powerful party is also in a position to evaluate and punish. Trust flees authority and above all, trust flees a judge. Leaders simply must make judgments about the performance of direct reports. The best leaders recognize this dynamic and work to limit its negative impact.
But there is no way to escape completely a direct report’s inclination to see the boss as a judge. People have a natural inclination to protect themselves. For example, people often hide failures in the hope that they will correct themselves. In a typical case, the development group for a piece of special software fell behind on its schedule. But no one told the manager until the delivery date could no longer be met. Delivery was three months late and the company had to absorb a financial penalty. The lack of candor was not self-protective in the long run because the development group was ultimately held responsible for the delay. But human beings are often short-sighted and at one time or another most of us have chosen an uncertain future calamity over today’s immediate unpleasantness.
A variation on this dynamic is when direct reports protect their own direct reports in order to protect themselves. Sometimes a direct report may try to protect a client. In one case, a salesman withheld the fact that one of his largest customers was in financial trouble. The customer went bankrupt and the company lost $125,000. We can only guess at the salesman’s motives—eagerness to get his commission before the troubled company failed, fear of losing an old customer, reluctance to give official warning of a danger that might be exaggerated. The fact remains that he failed to communicate the problem. His boss saw no sign of danger and the company lost a lot of money.
Often the motive for silence is somewhat praise-worthy. People keep quiet about a developing problem while trying to solve it. Most believe solving problems on their own is what they are paid to do and in many cases, they are right. Direct reports are not paid to run to their bosses with every glitch and hiccup. As problems grow more serious, however, leaders need to know about them.
The difficulty lies in the bewildering territory between minor snags and major disasters. Handled promptly and decisively, the problems in this gray area sometimes turn out to be insignificant, but self-confident supervisors, particularly inexperienced ones, are often too eager to prove they can cope on their own.
Politics is another common obstacle to candor. Organizations are political systems and employees are often caught up in political struggles— some as active participants, others as unwilling pawns.
Building and Destroying Trust
Given the natural obstacles to trust and candor—fear, pride, politics—leaders must optimize every opportunity to build trust. Trust is not easy to build in the best of cases and the kind of trust that concerns us here has to grow on rocky ground between people at different levels of authority.
The following factors are essential considerations in developing trust and candor: communication, connection, valuing, fairness, predictability, and competence.
Communicating is a matter of keeping direct reports informed and providing accurate feedback, explaining decisions and policies, being candid about one’s own problems, and resisting the temptation to hoard information.
Connecting is demonstrating concern for direct reports as people. It means being available and approachable. It means helping people, coaching them, encouraging their ideas, and defending their positions. It means socializing with them. It certainly means taking an interest in their lives and careers.
Valuing means meeting an essential human need—the need to be treated with dignity and respect. Important forms of respect are delegation and listening to direct reports and acting on their opinions. In the example cited below, the boss demonstrates genuine respect for a direct report’s judgment and intelligence.
My boss put me in charge of a project. It involved a big risk for me, but an even bigger risk for her if I failed. I asked her how she wanted me to do it and who else I should contact for a clearance. She said you have free rein on this, whatever you do is okay with me.
Fairness means giving credit where it is due, being objective and impartial in performance appraisals, and being generous with praise. The opposite kind of behavior— favoritism, hypocrisy, mis-appropriating ideas and accomplishments, and unethical behavior is difficult to forgive and hugely destructive to trust. Chronic lack of fairness will dry up trust and candor quickly, but every act of support and fair play will prime the pump.
Predictability is a matter of behaving consistently and dependably and of keeping both explicit and implicit promises. It is absolutely essential that direct reports be able to predict the leader’s behavior. And when I say predict the leader’s behavior, I mean the employee can count on the boss behaving in a fair and reasonable manner whatever the issue. Remember your employees want to know that they are valuable and they want to be able to make sense out of things. And when a leader is predictive in their behavior, that leader is someone who helps people make sense out of the work to be done.
Competence means demonstrating technical and professional ability and good business sense. This includes demonstrating a commitment to becoming increasingly good at what you already do well. Trust grows from seeds of decent behavior, but it thrives on the admiration and respect that only a capable leader can command.
Learning to Recognize Signs of Trouble
Building trust and candor is a gradual process—a long chain of positive experiences; trusting employees with important assignments, publicly defending their positions, and supporting their ideas, showing candor and fairness in evaluating their work, etc. And because trust takes time to build and has natural limits once achieved, it is easy to destroy. Betraying a confidence, breaking a promise, humiliating an employee in public, lying, withholding information, or excluding direct reports from groups in which they rightly belong. Any of these can do instant and irreparable damage to a trust relationship that has taken months or years to develop.
In contrast, the best leaders work to build honest, open, forthright and “safe” relationships. They help people feel as safe as possible. They teach people, through experience, it is “safe” to bring bad news quickly. This requires a leader watch for warning signs that people do not feel safe.
Decline in information flow is often a first of such signs. Streams of information suddenly go dry, direct reports communicate less and express opinions reluctantly. As a consequence, they are more difficult to reach and follow up has to be more thorough and deliberate.
Deteriorating morale is another warning sign. Lack of enthusiasm, reduced cooperation, increased complaints about workload, and a tendency to dump more problems on the boss’s desk may all be signs of dropping morale.
Nonverbal signals are yet another potential warning sign. An anxious tone of voice, nervous shrug of the shoulders, and general discomfort in professional interaction—where none existed previously—may be indications a direct report does not feel safe.
Body language, incidentally, is easily misinterpreted. Popular books have encouraged people to believe they can easily become experts, but interpreting body language is risky business. Distress signals may be triggered by events in a person’s private life, for example, and have nothing to do with the workplace. A more prudent approach is to see body language merely as a potential problem without jumping to conclusions about the source.
Turning Hints into Information
When leaders see changes in the behavior of the people they supervise, they do their best to amplify hints and gather supplemental information. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, by far the easiest way of obtaining information is to get it from a direct report in plain English. Leaders who have built good relationships with their direct reports are able to count on this approach. When they see the early warning signs of trouble, they ask questions. As I have stressed, the answers to their questions will be honest only to the degree an employee feels safe. In other words, a successful inquiry will depend on the level of trust.
Building the Safety Net
The best safety nets are fashioned from the fabric of openness. And openness requires the proper use of information and feedback. The proper use of information has everything to do with what is communicated, when it is communicated and how it is communicated. And when it comes to individual feedback, saying what needs to be said, when it needs to be said, in the manner in which it should be said are essential.
Using information well is primarily a matter of not misusing it by being discrete about its sources, of using it not as a weapon, but only as a means of solving problems and improving the quality of work life.
Sharing information means not spreading gossip, but also not hoarding the truth. Openness recognizes that people want and have a right to information that will help them do their jobs better or otherwise affect their lives.
In general, they also work better and suffer less stress when they are well informed. At the same time, and more important for this discussion, information attracts information. Leaders who are generous with what they share tend to get as much as they give.
Finally, an open environment, in which employees feel safe, requires that employees know where they stand — for better or worse. All employees have a right to know where they stand. The best employees want to know where they stand. Best of all, just as information tends to attract information, feedback tends to attract feedback. The leader who creates an open, give and take environment, creates a safe environment. They are far more likely to enable employees to feel safe in letting the boss know where the boss stands— with issues, problems and people.