There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Not the Trust You Thought

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Tensions are getting high, folks are starting to glare at each other, and there is an air of suspicion in the room. You want to know why the sales pitch isn’t ready yet, and are asking some tough questions of your team, and they are not enjoying it. Finally one of them asks you “Don’t you trust me to do my job?” and you realize you are about to lose control of the situation, giving up any chance of helping your team get the sales pitch back on track. How do you recover?

For years my response would have been to say that making it an issue of trust isn’t the point, that ‘trust’ isn’t even the right word to use. I’d talk about needing to stay accountable with each other. Sometimes the situation recovered, sometimes it didn’t. I was never happy with my response to the ‘do you trust me?’ question, so began looking around for better answers than I had come up with.

My mistake was in trying to respond to the question as asked, instead of understanding that the very question itself was a symptom of a deeper problem. And as it turned out, ‘trust’ was exactly the right word – it was the lack of trust at a deep level that resulted in that question even having to be asked. But not the kind of trust the questioner was talking about; the much deeper kind of trust that two people can have that leads each to be fearless with the other. With nothing to fear there is nothing to hide, with nothing to hide everything happens faster and smarter.

When you trust someone so completely as to allow yourself to be vulnerable with them you stop being afraid. Imagine not being afraid of looking silly or sounding dumb, or afraid that unless you are careful the other person will hurt you (professionally, emotionally, or physically).

It was “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, by Patrick M. Lencioni, that first pointed out this kind of trust for me, the trust that allows one to become vulnerable. (It’s an excellent book; I cannot recommend it highly enough.) Leadership should be actively building an environment that allows this kind of trust, but how?

The key to building this kind of trust lies in letting yourself become vulnerable.

By becoming vulnerable you are telling others that you don’t believe they will take advantage of your vulnerability. But the risk has to be real – if you play it safe enough that you are sure you can’t be hurt you are playing it too safe, and no matter how much you try to pretend, folks will realize you played it safe. When people see you being vulnerable, and see that others don’t hurt you, it helps them decide to become vulnerable too. Through this vulnerability a deep trust can be built, and this deep trust is a powerful ingredient of the highest performing teams.

Don’t confuse trust with friendship. True, often the two go hand in hand, but not necessarily. There are several professions where this level of trust is absolutely necessary, like being a fireman (each fireman must trust that any other fireman will risk their own life to rescue them). The same holds true for soldiers as well as many kinds of team sports. You can trust someone enough to be vulnerable whether you like them or not.

Leaders are responsible for helping their organizations develop this kind of trust. The true leader knows that they cannot ask their team to do what they would not – you can’t ask your team to become vulnerable unless you as the leader are willing to become vulnerable. This seems to be contradictory with what we think of as modern leadership. How does a leader become vulnerable, to show others that vulnerability is okay, while still being the strong leader people can rely on?

My general approach – the certainly not the only one – is to represent strength in public but demonstrate vulnerability in private. In the all hands meeting people should mostly see the strong confident leader, optimistically and honestly portraying the state of the business. In one on ones, or small group meetings, the leader can demonstrate more introspection and a willingness to be wrong. This is not to say that in every large event calls for strength and every small event calls for vulnerability – as with any guideline there are times this does not apply. One does not need to be contradictory to do both; in fact knowing you need to balance both helps govern the extremes of either.

By being vulnerable a leader shows others its okay to become vulnerable. Being vulnerable helps people establish a deep trust that you won’t be hurt for your actions. This trust replaces fear, and without fear communication gets better, so teams work together better, and ultimately business gets better.

As I am finishing this article up I notice the song I am listening too, and its specific lyric is “The secret to love is opening up your heart” (James Taylor, Secret O’ Life). I am amazed every time an important leadership lesson turns out to be a manifestation of something humanity has always known, but so often fails to remember.


Written by joshuahoward

April 7, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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2 Responses

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  1. I struggle with building trust in my coworkers and myself all the time. A difficulty we have in building trust is that the nature of our work requires a healthy sense of skeptism. Rocket science is not for the faint of heart since the consequences of failure can include the castastrophic loss of vehicle, payload or crew. Furthermore, we don’t educate our engineers to assess and debate ideas. Instead, engineering education is mostly about finding a specific answer to a specific problem in a specific way. Most applied engineering problems have more than one solution and the conflict arises when a group tries to determine which couse is the best action to take. Rather than debate pros and cons rationally, individuals perceive critism as a personal assault.

    Bruce Biskup

    April 8, 2009 at 3:44 pm

  2. I heard this phrase at some point in my life: “You can argue all you want until the boss makes up his [her] mind.”

    This means two things to me:
    1. A good leader/boss will hear all sides of an issue before making a decision.
    2. A good follower/employee will trust a good leader/boss and implement the decision to the best of their ability.


    April 11, 2009 at 6:52 pm

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