Written by Marc Bolick
It’s difficult to nurture genuine trust between leaders and team members, but it should be at the top of your list in 2023. Your reward may be a lasting competitive advantage that propels your organization to the top of your market.
As I was out for a bike ride recently—the one activity that provides me with the most moments of flow and creative thinking—a question started to form as I pondered leadership. Who needs to have more trust: the leader or those being led?
The answer, of course, is that it depends.
Leadership is a relationship
There is a perception that leadership is all about the leader. They have an elevated station in our organizational systems, depicted visually in the org chart ‘above’ those being led. Leaders are meant to provide vision and direction to those below them, who dutifully see and share the vision and help execute the leader’s direction.
Leaders are often thought of as being out in front of those they lead. They get paid more, are assumed to be intelligent and experienced, and generally hold a type of power based on their position in the organization called legitimate power.
In reality, leadership is more of a relationship than a position. It is a complicated relationship between leaders and the people they lead. In addition to the formal structures that bind followers to leaders, there is trust. If no trust exists, leadership is weak and ineffectual.
Without trust, there is no leadership
Trust is the lifeblood of healthy relationships and, if there is a lack of trust between the leader and their team, the team’s inability to get things done can end up frustrating everyone and result in team failure on many levels.
There is an unspoken understanding that leaders are looking out for individual interests of team members, those of the team as a whole and the goals of the organization. This is a lot to balance all at once. Keeping this balance can easily be underappreciated and frequently leaders are put in a position where it is impossible to achieve.
In healthy teams, the members know that this balance is hard. They appreciate the leader’s skills and talents, and they provide support to the leader through their dedication, work and loyalty.
Equally, leaders must trust those they lead. Being the leadership equivalent of a helicopter parent—even with the best of intentions—only frustrates team members. Team leaders and people managers know they can only get things done through their team.
Leaders are uniquely responsible for the fitness of their team and each member through the many decisions they have made and actions they have taken about hiring, training, coaching, feedback, recognition, and on and on.
Trustful leaders tend to provide teams and individuals with clear direction and goals that are attainable but challenging. They then step back and provide support and organizational air cover when needed.
In this healthy, trusting alliance, team members trust that their leader will set a clear direction, make good decisions, provide needed resources, and maintain a clear path for the work to get done. Conversely, leaders trust their teams to fulfill the vision and accomplish the agreed-upon goals, communicating progress and raising issues as they arise.
When leadership goes wrong
The days of command and control are rapidly waning, even for workers who hold ‘deskless jobs’—i.e., jobs that require physical presence such as many roles in healthcare, retail, manufacturing, etc. Indeed, a recent study of over 7,000 deskless workers in seven major economies reports that a whopping 37% of workers indicated they might quit.
The pandemic put the idea of closely monitoring knowledge workers to the test. Previously, the untrustful leader’s anxiety could be quelled by seeing people physically at their desk, working—but that went through the roof when everyone was working from home. To counter the leader’s anxiety, according to a Digital.com study, 60% of companies are now using monitoring software to see when remote workers are, well, working.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of corporate spyware erodes trust and results in a host of complications that Forbes says are “doomed to backfire.”
Followership is just as important
Just like any relationship of trust, it is a two-way street. Leaders have to trust those they are leading, and that is as much the responsibility of teams and team members as it is of the leader.
In the same Digital.com study cited above, there are clear reasons why some organizations have implemented monitoring software. Employers report that over half of their remote workers spend over three hours on non-work activities.
These statistics are alarming to any company, but they are a sign of serious cultural and leadership issues. Many people are gaming the system and getting by with the bare minimum instead of working to achieve the best outcomes for the organization and their colleagues.
Healthy culture nurtures trust
The disruption and change brought about by the pandemic and other global stresses has thrown many organizations into continual chaos. While leadership and management are ultimately responsible for the ills of the organization, everyone suffers when the social contract between employer and employee breaks down.
Leaders and team members are equally responsible for managing the trust relationship. This is a truly symbiotic relationship that, when you get it right, can be the lasting competitive advantage that propels an organization to the top of their market.
I don’t want to imply that people working in toxic environments or suffering in jobs that are uninspiring and joyless should just stick it out. Fixing those kinds of broken organizations is clearly a management responsibility. I do believe, however, that all team members are collectively responsible for not only their own success but also the success of their colleagues, their teams and, yes, their leaders.
I love the metaphor of culture as a garden that my friend Dave Gray uses in his change management tool, The Culture Map. In short, leaders and management (the “gardeners”) are responsible for preparing the soil, planting the seeds, and generally creating the conditions for a good culture.
Culture is ultimately co-created by all the people in the organization, leaders and followers alike. Trust is a key component of a healthy culture and healthy teams. It is the interconnected roots and energy exchanges within the soil of the garden that nurtures growth for the whole organization.