Sam sat at her desk, shoulders slumped. This was the third time her boss had spoken to her about the proposal today. It was due in a few days and she noticed the situation was getting worse. She couldn’t make a move in the office without him asking her about it. What was his problem? Couldn’t he give her a break so she could actually get it done?
Is Sam’s situation unusual? Not in my experience. Over the years I’ve seen many “hovering” leaders who wait anxiously for their team to deliver something, unable to relax until it’s completely done with. It’s not that they want to be this way. It’s simply because they have a lack of trust in the ability of their team.
Once a leader has developed a lack of trust in the ability of team members, it’s an uphill battle from then on. Lack of trust has a tendency to ruin productivity and leads to micromanagement. Many leaders have difficulty learning to let go, and a lack of trust is often the root cause.
1. Lack of trust kills productivity
Productivity is easily damaged when a lack of trust is evident in a team. Leaders who don’t trust their team will frequently seek to monitor progress on tasks. This is normal, until it becomes so frequent that team members start to notice.
Leaders will start to spend much of their time monitoring the work of their team. Instead of letting people get on with the task, they will ask more questions and interrupt the work. They simply don’t believe that their team is capable and as a result, they will spend an inordinate amount of time checking and rechecking.
Not only does this kill productivity for the leader, but it also ruins the team member’s flow and autonomy. They aren’t able to work solidly for long until the questions start. Or they’re forced to buddy up with somebody else who is more experienced because the boss doesn’t think they’re up to the task.
Leaders who lack trust in their team will begin to attend more meetings that they don’t actually need to. They’ll want to keep an eye on their “incompetent” employee. They’ll spend time heavily scrutinising the work. They may even say “I’ll just do it myself” and refuse to delegate the task.
All of these actions will make you a less effective leader. Until you learn to trust.
2. Lack of trust dilutes accountability
An important characteristic of good leaders is the ability to hold their teams accountable. Unfortunately, when a leader doesn’t believe her team is up to a task, this has the potential to dilute accountability in the team. Let’s see how.
Tom asks Sam to prepare the proposal in our earlier example. Sam gets to work, feeling as if she is responsible for the proposal. Unfortunately, Tom’s lack of trust in Sam’s ability gets the better of him and he start to take over. He makes changes, tells Sam to do things differently and basically starts to take command.
Sam loses confidence and starts to think “what’s the point?” Instead of trying to do a great job to start with, she will do just enough work to hand over to Tom, who will change it all anyway.
Now, who is accountable for the proposal? It was Sam, but now Tom is all over it. Since he got himself so heavily involved, he has made himself responsible for doing the work. And now accountabilities are confused and uncertainty starts to grow as to who owns what.
3. Lack of trust builds and reinforces itself
In the previous situation, Sam started to give up. She observed Tom’s increasing micromanagement and noticed that he has a lack of trust in her ability. Unfortunately, Sam starts to lose belief in her own ability too. “Maybe I’m not good enough”, she thinks.
Instead of working independently and trying to make the best of it, she starts to doubt herself. She starts to look for Tom’s opinion on every minor detail of the proposal, because she now thinks she’s not good enough to make the decisions.
Let’s look at it from the other side. Tom now sees Sam defer to him constantly, on every detail of the proposal. He didn’t trust her ability before, and now he has even more evidence that he was right. “Sam can’t be capable, otherwise she would deal with this herself”, he thinks.
What we have now is a case of self fulfilling prophecy. Tom lacks trust. Sam notices this and loses confidence. Tom sees this loss of confidence as confirmation that he was correct not to trust Sam.
On and on we go, in a downward spiral.
So how you combat a lack of trust in the ability of your team?
It’s certainly not easy to come back from a lack of trust in a team. I’ve been there before. Usually, getting back to the basics of leadership will help you.
Set clear expectations
Firstly, you need to set clear expectations of your team members. Only when expectations are clear do you have the right to question your team on their performance.
If you don’t explain yourself clearly including when you need something, what exactly you need and why you need it, then you have no right to hassle your team because of your lack of trust.
Let your team members fail (or succeed)
You don’t want to use self-fulfilling prophecy in a negative way. You need to leave your team alone so they can perform their tasks without constant interference. If you have set clear expectations and you doubt the ability of your team, sometimes, you need to let them fail.
Only when they fail to deliver against clear expectations do you have the ability to pinpoint and identify the problem. To assist with this, setting short-term review milestones will let you see the progress, hopefully allowing you to course-correct before it becomes a catastrophic failure.
When I say “let your team members fail”, what I really mean is “give your team members a chance to succeed”. If you constantly interfere in their process, you are negatively impacting the outcome, and you might just have yourself to blame.
Look inside to find what is causing your lack of trust
When you question the ability of your team to deliver, there is usually a reason for it. It may be that you believe your team don’t have the skills to do the work.
Perhaps you believe they aren’t motivated and aren’t going “over and above” for you. Maybe they dislike their job, and it shows in their performance.
Fortunately for you, many of these trust issues are able to be solved. If you think your team members don’t have the skills, coach, mentor and develop your team. Perhaps you think they aren’t motivated. So look for ways to motivate your team.
If they don’t like their job, then look for ways that you can incorporate what they do like into their day to day work. If there are discipline issues, then maybe it’s time to have a difficult conversation.
At the end of the day, it comes down to a simple truth: