From the time we’re children through adolescence and into adulthood, there’s a common phrase spoken by the people in our lives. We’ve likely heard it from our parents when encouraging us to try new food. Or maybe from a friend when navigating a road trip shortcut. Perhaps we’ve heard a boss say it when trying to convince a team that changing a project’s strategic direction is a good idea. “Trust me.” It’s one thing to hear it, but it’s another thing entirely to believe it.
Trust is a critical component in all personal and professional relationships, however it’s a scarce commodity in our modern world. Specifically, distrust in our leaders is a pervasive problem that severely impacts our professional lives and according to Forbes and the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 63% of employees don’t trust their leaders. A critical component of leading any team in any situation is trust. Simply, it’s the foundation that strong leadership is built on.
Internationally-recognized professor, author, and speaker for her work studying vulnerability, Brené Brown has a lot to say about the trust involved in bringing our whole, human selves to work.
First, she reminds us that we’re all just people, no matter our rank or experience level. Inviting individuals to bring their whole selves to work requires a great deal of trust because leaders take on the responsibility of inviting potentially messy, but whole-hearted people to work.
Thankfully, more and more leaders are acknowledging their imperfect, whole-hearted human teams. They’re peeling back the titles and the egos built up over the course of modern corporate history and they’re coming back to strategies that put a spotlight on our shared humanness. Our imperfect, vulnerable, caring humanness.
The idea of celebrating our human qualities at work becomes especially fascinating in the age of artificial intelligence. Brown sheds light on the irony of today’s juxtaposed business landscape: “…the same time as we’re worrying about machine learning and artificial intelligence taking jobs into humanizing work, we are intentionally, or unintentionally, creating cultures that, instead of leveraging the unique gifts of the human heart (like empathy, vulnerability, and emotional literacy), we’re trying to lock those gifts away.” Machines are really good at crunching numbers and not having an ego to bruise, but they’re not good at matters of the heart, which is the backbone of strong leadership. The sentiment is echoed by Dr. Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, Director, The London School of Economics: “In the past jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in the future, they’ll be about the heart.”
As we approach the next decade, how will strong leadership be defined? What will allow a good leader to elevate themselves to the level of a great leader? In examining the research, I believe that strong leadership will be focused more directly on building trust and it will look a lot more ‘human’. In fact, I dare to predict that leadership in 2020 and beyond will be underscored by our ‘shared humanity’. By this I mean leadership being open to bringing personal matters into traditionally impersonal business settings. The lines between personal and professional lives will become ever-more blurred with opportunities for leaders to really understand and care for the people with whom they work. What’s the payoff? It includes teams who care personally, who are invested deeply in succeeding in a common goal, and who demonstrate loyalty to leadership. Will it be easy? Nothing worth doing is ever easy.
The Trust Triangle
So what is trust and how is it understood? Frances Frei, Professor of Technology and Operations Management at the Harvard Business School, breaks down trust into three component parts: logic, authenticity, and empathy.
.First, if there’s an issue with the logic that’s causing a breakdown of trust, it could be for one of two reasons: the quality of the logic or one’s ability to effectively communicate the logic. Secondly, most people can sniff out inauthentic behaviours very quickly, and so not bringing your whole self to work or being afraid to show vulnerability leads to an erosion of trust. Finally, empathy (or the ability to believe that someone is not self-interested) is the final piece of the trust puzzle. Frei believes that this is the most common reason for the breakdown of trust, as most people believe that others, including their leaders, are self-interested. Simply, if any of the three areas of trust are shaken, trust breaks. And without trust, everything becomes much more difficult.
In examining what a great leader will look like in the next decade, there are two overarching strategies that I will examine below that you can use to be more authentic and show greater empathy to actively build trust with your teams: being vulnerable and being honest.
Building Trust Through Vulnerability
Oxford defines ‘vulnerability’ as “exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” Synonyms include ‘in danger’, ‘in jeopardy’, and ‘unsafe’. No wonder we avoid showing vulnerability!
Brown is an expert in the intersection of vulnerability and leadership in our modern workplace. She’s all about embracing emotions and feelings, which haven’t been part of the conversation in the modern history of leadership. She argues that trying to remove, eliminate, or efficiently take the ‘humanness’ out of business is not only is a waste of time and energy, but a missed opportunity to create a workplace culture for your employees and customers that celebrates all that the human heart has to offer.
Brown has found that while some may think that talking about difficult feelings is ‘too kumbaya’ or ‘too touchy-feely’, these conversations take a lot of courage. Another excuse for ignoring human-centered conversations at work are leaders who don’t believe there’s time for them and that they shouldn’t be made a priority.
Brown recommends that leaders calculate the cost of distrust and disconnection in terms of productivity, performance, and engagement when difficult conversations are buried or ignored. (Spoiler: the number is potentially huge.) And this brings us to an important finding in Brown’s research. She’s found that all leaders come to a critical decision point for their teams: either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings OR squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour. Brown reminds us that the process of having potentially uncomfortable, human-centered conversations is going to be difficult, even awkward at first, and that’s okay.
“If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I am not interested in, nor open to, your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today, filled with people who will never be brave with their own lives, but who will spend every ounce of the energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those of us who are trying to dare greatly.” – Brené Brown
How do you encourage your team to come down from the cheap seats and be more vulnerable? Before your next meeting, provide everyone with information about the decision to be made as a result of the meeting. Ask everyone to arrive at the meeting with a perspective on the decision. By actively inviting team members to do their research and prepare a perspective ahead of time, this supercharges discussion and accelerates idea generation. Most importantly, asking each person to disclose their perspective makes sure that all team members have to ‘get into the arena’. They can’t just watch from the sidelines. Team members are allowed to change their minds as new information is presented, however, everyone’s got something to lose, which makes them a little more vulnerable, and open to vulnerability from others, providing space for increased authenticity and empathy.
Building Trust Through Honesty
In her groundbreaking work on building more trusting and productive workplaces, author Kim Scott, has a thing or two to say about honesty. She’s built a management philosophy, courses, and a company around it. Scott, who worked in management at Apple and then Google, explains her philosophy in a book by the same name: Radical Candor. Being radically candid helps satisfy both the desire for increased authenticity and empathy to build trust by being a ‘kick-ass boss without losing your humanity’. She argues that society undervalues the emotional challenges of being a good boss, which is to say the challenges involved in managing a diverse team of people. “…at the very heart of being a good boss – at Apple, at Google, or anywhere else on earth – is a good relationship.”
Scott reminds us that being the boss means that it’s your responsibility to guide your team to achieve results. Guiding involves giving direction, giving praise, and also giving constructive feedback (being radically candid) when the work just isn’t good enough. To be a radically candid boss means both caring personally for your team and challenging them directly. Modern management strategies, however, sometimes steer leaders in the opposite direction:
“Unfortunately, conventional wisdom and a lot of management advice pushes bosses to challenge less, rather than encouraging them to care more.”
Teams need to know that the (sometimes harsh) feedback is coming from a place of support and good faith. Strong leaders care more while simultaneously challenging more.
However, radical candor is not something that only happens from the top down; it’s not hierarchical and it’s critical that your team feels as though they can be radically candid with you, too. Furthermore, if you’re reading this and you’re part of a team but not the leader, you can still create a climate of radical candor amongst your teammates. It is critical however that you’re not nitpicking for the sake of it without caring personally, which lands you solely in the camp of being ‘obnoxiously aggressive’ when providing guidance. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but one that builds trust and better collaboration over time.
How do you get started? How do you encourage your team to be receptive to direct feedback? A technique you can try includes finding time for real conversations with your direct reports about their lives outside of work on a human level. What do they care about? What fires them up? What are their challenges? Scott also advises leaders to start by asking for feedback before dishing it out. Show that you can take accept feedback and act on that feedback, modelling changed behaviour. When you feel like you’re ready to provide radically candid feedback to your team, start with praise before lobbing criticisms, which is more difficult (although necessary and worth it) to pull off effectively.
Brown’s work studying vulnerability echoes Scott’s work studying honesty: “Clear is kind and unclear is unkind.” Both leaders have found that being direct (ensuring first that you’ve created an environment that shows that you care deeply) is the best way to help your team members do their best work. Skirting around an issue, or worse, talking negatively about someone or their work behind their back, erodes trust and creates a toxic environment. Remember that good habits pay dividends through encouraging team members to follow your example.
Trust Stems From Safety
Trust, as well as cooperation, are natural by-products of teams whose leaders make them feel safe. Author and speaker Simon Sinek, found that when he asked people who were part of an organization that made them feel safe why they did something valiant or courageous or helpful for another person, they responded with “…because they would have done it for me”.
Trust and cooperation are tricky because they are feelings and not instructions. You can’t just tell people to cooperate or to trust; they have to want to be trusting and cooperative towards others. Sinek explains: “If the conditions are wrong, we are forced to expend our own time and energy to protect ourselves from each other, and that inherently weakens the organization.”
He also believes that great leaders would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save their people, versus the alternative. An excellent example is manufacturing company, Barry-Wehmiller. In 2008, the company was hit hard during the recession and 30 percent of their orders disappeared overnight. In being forced to save 10 million dollars, the company’s leader, Bob Chapman, had to come up with a plan but he refused to sacrifice his people; he believed there were options other than laying off his workforce. His idea involved all employees “hurting a little” so that no one would get “hurt a lot”. His solution was a required four week unpaid vacation for every member of the organization. Barry-Wehmiller employees took the system into their own hands and began to trade vacation time: those who could afford to take more unpaid time took on additional weeks so that those who could afford it less, could take fewer. In the end, the company ended up saving twice as much as it had originally set out to save and employee morale went up. Trust and cooperation were the natural by-products of employees feeling safe and protected.
Leading Through Our Shared Humanity
I believe that being a daring leader in 2020 and beyond will mean acting a little more human at work and encouraging teams to do the same. Increasing acts of vulnerability, as well as being honest while caring deeply for your team (being radically candid) are two overarching ideas to increase trust, and with it engagement, loyalty, and deep satisfaction in your work. Brown reminds us that trust is earned in small moments, not necessarily in grand gestures. Pay attention and listen in moments of genuine caring connection. Reciprocal vulnerability between individuals in small moments is ultimately how trust is formed.
Furthermore, Sinek reminds us that “leadership is a choice; it’s not a rank.” Leadership and authority are two very different things. We do what authorities say because they have authority over us, but we would not otherwise follow them. Conversely, there are many people with very little, or no, authority who act like leaders in organizations by looking out for, and building trust with those around them.
Ultimately, leading through shared humanity opens up the possibility for more fulfilling relationships that serve a greater purpose than the day-to-day grind provides. We’re constantly told that money doesn’t buy happiness and neither does a fancy home, car, or [insert material item of choice here]. These things may be fun and create a quick rush of excitement that is sometimes confused for real happiness, but the hedonic treadmill under every human’s feet means that these fleeting feelings require an even bigger home, car, or [insert material item of choice here] to achieve the same future high.
What creates happiness in life, and by proxy, in our teams at work? Author and minimalist-advocate, Joshua Becker, reminds us that “doing the best we can, where we are, with what we’ve been given” is a proven strategy for a life filled with meaning.
Coming to work and doing the best we can for the people we work for through engaging in meaningful, productive relationships is what strong leaders already inherently know to be true. Every day, there are opportunities to strengthen personal working relationships, which creates the groundwork on which our best professional selves can thrive. In 2020 and beyond, being open to personal matters in traditionally impersonal settings will separate the good leaders from the great. TRUST ME.
Author Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.