Leaders should give employees trust – a meaningful demand, but also an ambitious one. Our colleague Patrick Wiederhake explains in the “Healthy Leadership Vlog” of our client Bayer AG why the opposite of trust is not mistrust and how leaders can deal with the demand for trustworthy leadership.
What does trust feel like?
When was the last time you felt that someone really trusted you? What was the feeling like?
If you’re anything like me, you experienced it not as one feeling, but as several. Perhaps a mixture of energy, gratitude, joy, uncertainty, responsibility.
When I Thorsten from Bayer AG invited me to write this blog for their healthy leadership initiative, that’s exactly what I felt. I was delighted to have the opportunity and by his trust in my ability to offer something of relevance. When I began to think about the concept of trust, it grew ever bigger in my mind – as did the uncertainty of being able to narrow it down in a meaningful way. The pressure was mounting, I did not want to disappoint. Then I got Covid, many equally important things fell by the wayside and writing was out of the question. When I told Thorsten that the delivery of the piece would be delayed and he responded merely with “get yourself well first, I’ll take care of the rest – let me know if there’s anything I can do”, his trust in me was greater than the trust I had in myself. I was grateful, got well again – and shortly afterwards, I got down to work.
Why it’s so important to feel trusted.
Trust is the foundation for everything we do. When we come into the world, we depend on others to take care of us. And we know, intuitively, that they will. A baby cries because it hopes that someone will respond. As we grow up, this trust is confirmed and rewarded at best – we learn that we can rely on others. Our parents are there, even if we can’t always see them. We are protected when we can’t protect ourselves. Somebody takes responsibility for making sure that we are okay – until we are able to do this ourselves. Only by trusting in this protection can we have our own experiences without fear, try things out, take risks, learn new skills. Only in this way do we develop trust in ourselves.
We see how important this is when trust is not rewarded. When people are let down in their initial relationship experiences, this often stays with them for life. The acquisition of skills and independence thus takes place not out of a sense of exploration and curiosity, but due to a feeling of defensiveness: if I don’t learn to take care of myself, I’m lost. Also in this case people learn – but the sense of insecurity remains.
We also experience another aspect of trust from an early age: if, as children, we are always caught before we can ever fall, then we never learn our own limits. Children need to be able to find their limits, make mistakes, get hurt. They need to learn that their behavior has consequences for them, and that they can avoid making the same mistake next time. That’s how they build trust in their own abilities.
It’s that fine line. Always getting a little bit more freedom, always feeling just that little bit more confident that should be. And, on the other hand, always knowing that we are protected from mistakes that cannot be corrected. That there is someone who knows what we are capable of. That is the formula for growth and fearlessly acquiring competence.
Also in the working environment, receiving trust to exactly the right extend is not for granted. Rather, trust is a gift, because
- trust is always voluntary.
We cannot force anybody to trust us. We desire it, sometimes we expect it. And yet: someone else always decides how much trust is to be placed in us.
- trust is appreciation.
When someone trusts us, we hear “you’re important here,” “you can do this,” “I can count on you.” Concrete trust is much more appreciation than any unspecific praise.
- trust of others strengthens our self-confidence.
We all have insecurities and fears. Sometimes, we don’t make a start on something because we don’t trust ourselves to do it. The trust of others then increases our confidence at times when we lack it.
- trust is possibility.
When someone trusts us, they give us the freedom to do something that we would otherwise not be able to do alone.
When we feel trusted, it gives us energy. So, we get to work, when otherwise we would not have done so. Trust helps us out of our comfort zone. It helps us to move away from the realm in which we feel safe. When the trust that we receive from others is somewhat greater than the trust we have in ourselves, we begin to grow. And we gain new courage.
Why trust doesn’t come easy when you are a leader
In a leadership context, trust is demonstrated by delegation of responsibility. Responsibility leads to room for maneuver. Room for maneuver is a prerequisite for satisfaction and health at work. This is exactly what managers want for their employees. Why do we still often find it difficult to hand over responsibility and show trust?
Trust is a word with at least three opposites:
- The opposite of trust is control
“Trust is good, control is better” is a phrase that is familiar to every child who grew up in 20th-century Germany. Technically, trust consists of the certainty that a person or system will behave as planned and expected. Control involves fulfilling one’s responsibility to check the quality of this prediction. That’s why products are tested, even if the production process is long established. That is why we look at employees’ work results. Too much control is not efficient. Too little means that systematic errors are overlooked. Defining the level of control thus becomes a technical, substantive discussion.
- The opposite of trust is indifference
I only show trust when the results matter to me. If I say “Do what you want, it’s okay” and I don’t care about the consequences, then I am not demonstrating trust. Trust is always revealed by your own vulnerability. I demonstrate trust when there is also something at stake for me.
- The opposite of trust is fear
The opposite of trust is not mistrust. Mistrust is only the symptom. On an emotional level, fear is the opposite of trust. If I can’t trust someone without having concrete evidence, this is based on the fear of being disappointed, of being vulnerable. Trust is a gift because we must overcome our fears in order to trust.
Trust has two facets: trust in skills (also referred to as confidence) and trust in intentions (loyalty, goodwill, values, etc.) Both facets of trust come to people with varying degrees of ease.
It is difficult to place trust in someone or something – or, rather, to place the right amount of trust in them – because
- I need to be able to objectively assess how well that person (or that system) will perform a task and will make the right decisions in the process. And this also in line with my interests.
- I must make myself vulnerable and deal with any of my own fears that might arise from delegating responsibility for something that has relevance for me to someone else.
Managers do not always find these two things easy.
- They have usually learned to trust in their own abilities. Even if they might trust the intentions of others – can anyone really do the job as well as I can? Finding the right indicators for reliably assessing people and systems is a real skill that managers need to develop.
- They are usually closely linked to their own sense of responsibility. Can someone be trusted to take the task equally as seriously? Will someone behave the way I want them to? What will it mean to me if someone fails?
As managers, we will not trust until both hurdles have been cleared. When we have found someone who we believe will live up to our standards, both hurdles are to be taken seriously and are relevant. But we should not confuse the two.
Trust is a choice
There are few effects that are better acknowledged in psychology than the so-called self-fulfilling prophecy. When we trust someone, we are more likely to see an outcome that makes it easier for us to trust again at the next opportunity. Why is that? Ask yourself how you act when someone places trust in you. Generally, two things happen:
- Your self-belief grows, and you set to work with greater confidence.
- You don’t want to disappoint the person who has placed trust in you. The task therefore becomes more important, and you put in more of an effort.
If someone trusts you, you also do it for others.
If we do not feel trusted, that makes us feel insecure. Why should we trust in our abilities if others do not? And – on a more serious note – why should we act in good faith if others do not do the same for us? Of course, we can also feel a drive to prove ourselves, to show that we can be trusted. Mistakes will always be found if someone is looking for them. And if the one-off mistake, then leads to someone refusing to trust us at all, then this drive disappears.
Leaders who look for reasons to confirm their mistrust in others will find them.
Leaders who look for reasons to confirm their trust in others will find them.
Trust is rewarded, mistrust is confirmed.
What can we do?
You have seen that trust is not a given – for either side. You might even ask: if trust comes all too easily, how much is it worth? This does mean, however, that trust is work for everyone involved. Building a relationship of trust needs work, and it’s work that pays off. Because a solid relationship of trust leads to better health and better performance. It simplifies cooperation in an already complex world. And helps to prepare us to work together to meet the unknown challenges that lie ahead.
What can you do as a leader to strengthen the relationship of trust that you have with your team?
Simply talking about trust builds trust. Discuss what it’s like to trust in someone with your team or with individuals. In which circumstances do you find it comes easily? Where do you struggle as a leader? Why? What would help you?
Monitor your own behavior during these discussions. What makes you feel more confident? How do you notice when you find it difficult to trust someone? What exactly is your concern?
Ask your team and individuals to what extent they feel trusted by you. What is it like for the people on your team? Where do they wish you would trust them more? Where might you also want more guidance and control?
Start by clearly defining how much trust you can give in each area. Choose a specific area of action. Talk about the amount of responsibility you can delegate in that area. There are also methods for this, such as “delegation poker” which determines to what extent each task will be delegated.
Do an experiment. Do trust exercises, together with your team. Agree with one another when and how you will review and evaluate your experiences together. Stick to that agreement.
It is not always easy to talk about trust, or about why it is hard sometimes. These are not always easy conversations.
But building a solid relationship of trust with the team makes everything that comes later so much easier.
So, take the next opportunity and go have a chat with your team. You can do it.
I trust you.