The Importance of Trust . . . It’s Not What You Think

Posted on Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Management, Motivation, Project Management, Talent Management
By Erik Van Slyke, Managing Director, www.erikvanslyke.com

A few weeks ago I was talking with a project manager who wanted an assessment of his team’s capability.  The project was moving along without significant problems, but was approaching an intense period with several critical milestones.  The project manager felt unsettled because his team was not providing the analysis and insight he expected.

“I don’t think I have a team that has the right skill set,” the project manager confessed.  “We’re coming up on some very important milestones and they’re not giving me what I want.  I don't think they know what they are doing.  I am going to have to make some decisions without their input.”

When I spoke with the project team, they expressed a similar frustration.  “I don’t feel like he trusts us,” the lead shared.  “Meetings are more like an inquisition.  We’ve all worked on similar projects before, but he hasn’t recognized any of our experience.”

There have been a number of studies that have examined the relationship between trust in management and the actual performance at the group or organizational level.  One study, for example, found that when basketball team members trust their coach, their performance is better.  Another study found that when restaurant employees trust their manager the restaurant's sales and net profits increase.  The results of these studies prove that when employees trust management, organizations have greater success.

More importantly, a study by Sabrina Deutsch Salamon (York University) and Sandra Robinson (University of British Columbia) found that when employees feel that they are trusted by management, organizational performance is improved.  This is significant because it shows that a sense of “felt trust” affects performance beyond the effect of employee trust in management.  It shows that when employees feel trusted by management, it can have a direct impact on the top and bottom lines.

This is a very different picture than the leader standing on a pedestal waiting for employees to prove themselves and earn his or her trust.  These results suggest that successful leaders start the relationship by actively showing employees they trust them through words and deeds.

For many organizational leaders and human resources professionals, this study validates what they have known intuitively for years: the more you engage and involve your employees, the more you give them autonomy to do their jobs, the better you tap their intrinsic motivation and drive performance skyward.

Unfortunately, many of the well-developed techniques of organizational management and control work directly against these findings.  This is especially true of rigorous project management methodologies.  They enable companies to organize people in different places with different skills to perform tasks with structure consistency, but at the risk of marginalizing the relationship building skills that build trust.

It’s a delicate, but important, balance.  To be a successful leader, especially under the demands of time-intensive projects, it is critical that you apply the formal structures and process needed for systematic execution AND that you trust without hesitation.

People will be more self-directed, committed and creative when managers develop a climate of trust by communicating openly, minimizing the relationship distance between themselves and their subordinates, and creating a comfortable environment where employees can develop and use their abilities.