Updated: Feb 27
Once upon a time, I worked for Ericka. Ericka was upfront. She encouraged discussion, even when I disagreed with her. When Ericka decided on a course of action that differed from the team’s suggestions, she took the time to explain why. She backed me up – even if I’d made a mistake. If I’d been dealing with irate parents, Ericka was always willing to reiterate what I’d told them. When Ericka delegated, she told me her vision but gave me the autonomy to create. She showed our team time and time again that we could trust her, so we had no reservations going to her with problems or ideas. Ericka created a culture of psychological safety. Our team was highly engaged, innovative, and worked together to improve our services for our students and organization.
Then came the reorganization. Our new supervisor, Anton, spoke of openness, honesty, and collaboration, so we continued to be open about our thoughts and suggestions. Unfortunately, we quickly learned that our opinions were only welcome if we agreed with him. Parents or students simply went over our heads to get what they wanted. If Anton had an issue with someone on the team, he would talk behind their back to other staff members. Anton was untrustable. Instead of being empowered, we worked around him. We spent much of our energy trying to protect ourselves, so we had less to give to our jobs. Our engagement, creativity, and collaboration suffered.
Gallup's research shows that when employees don’t trust their manager the chances of them being engaged is only 1 in 12 (a sad 8.33%). That’s worse than the, not-so-great, national average of 33%! Gallup's research also reveals that trust is essential if you want to have a strong, engaged team. Successful teams don’t discuss respect, honesty, or integrity. Why? They don’t need to. As Stephen R. Covey said, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”
Here are three ways you can increase trust between you and your employees:
1. Be Honest, Transparent, & Timely | This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's easy to justify things. Maybe you're trying to spare someone’s feelings. Maybe you're trying to protect your team from bad news. Maybe you don’t have the time or energy to have a difficult conversation. Maybe you're hoping we can do some fancy footwork to fix the situation. The problem is that in all of these situations, if/when the truth comes out, you have shown your team they cannot rely on you to know where they stand.
Example #1. You have an employee that has been chronically late. People are complaining. Work isn’t getting done. Maybe you send an email to the whole team “reminding” them when work begins hoping they’ll get the hint. Maybe you talk to them, but keep it light – “Is everything okay? I’ve noticed you’ve been coming in late. Is there anything I can do to help?” Another favorite, is waiting to address it in their annual review. All these tactics lack direct, specific, and timely information. Meanwhile the employee keeps coming in late until the situation blows up. What could have been a quick fix has now impacted the entire team. You've shown your team they can’t trust you to tell them when there’s a problem and they may not believe you can or will hold people accountable.
Example #2. Enrollment is down. Budgets and possibly staff are being cut. Your team is already stressed, and feeling overworked. Why tell your team they are probably going to have fewer resources, no raises, and people might lose their jobs? Let's just wait and see if it even happens. The problem here – and really in all situations – is that you can’t control information. Whether or not you tell your team what you know, word will get out. In the absence of direct and accurate information, people will fill in the blanks themselves. Your team is going to worry anyway. If you don’t get ahead of it and allow them the space to discuss it openly, they will spend their energy trying to figure out what’s going on. When the truth does come out and you didn’t prepare them, the cost will be any trust you’ve built.
Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” Sugar coating tough conversations, or avoiding them, simply demonstrates to your staff that they can’t trust you. If you know something, tell them. If you don’t know something, admit it. If it’s something knowable, try to find out. If it’s unknowable (at that point), be honest about it. Don't fall for the myth that supervisors should know everything. Do your best to be open and honest so your team feels comfortable going directly to you for information. Then they’ll trust you to tell them what they need to know.
2. Be Authentic | A supervisor wears many hats. It is easy to think in order to be a good supervisor you need to be great at everything. Guess what…you’re not. No one is. If you know someone who seems to be great at everything I guarantee you'll find a hot mess behind the scenes.
Instead of pretending you're good at everything, discover your talents. See how they show up while you’re wearing those different hats. Invest in your talents – with increased skills, knowledge, and practice – to become even better at those things. Your Strengths drive your leadership style, and how you see your team. Trying to emulate other leaders won’t help you succeed because you have different talents. Instead, spend time reflecting about what you appreciate about that person as a leader, mentor, or guru. Then think about how YOUR talents can help you adapt what you admire to your authentic leadership style.
Focus on creating complementary partnerships on things that fall outside your Strengths Zone. For example, if you are usually quick to act without knowing the specific data or history on an issue, partner with someone who is talented at looking at data or the context of an issue to help you make better decisions. On the flip side, if you are someone who thinks things to death before acting, partner with someone is talented in assessing situations quickly.
If there’s no one with whom you can partner, try reframing that task through the lens of YOUR talents. Sometimes just thinking about things in a different way can give us the motivation we need to get it done - even if it still isn’t the favorite part of your job. For example, if you find entering notes or data is boring and draining, but you are energized by helping individual students, think about how entering that information is really an opportunity to serve students better by using data to justify budget requests or identify patterns to be more proactive.
Being authentic also means being vulnerable. It is easy to think successful leaders know everything and are practically perfect (in every way). Wrong. Perfect people are irritating and unrelatable. Everybody makes mistakes, everyone can grow and learn. Be honest when you don’t know something or want information before making a decision. Made a mistake? Apologize. Talk about your struggles with a situation. Being vulnerable will help your team see you as a real person, which in turn will increase trust and give them the opportunity to support you. That’s why you have a team – to make your department successful. The sum is greater than the whole of the parts. We need each other to produce the best product or services.
Finally, be yourself. Have you ever interacted with someone who acted one way in one environment and completely different in another? I don’t mean being professional in a meeting but casual at happy hour. I mean someone who genuinely seem like different person from one situation to another. People notice that and wonder who that person “really is.” If you feel like you have to be someone else or hide who you really are, there’s a disconnect. If you’re worried people won’t like the real you or that they won’t take you seriously as a supervisor, you need to do some work on yourself. Successful leaders are great because they’re ALWAYS who they are. Yes, they can curse less in certain situations or tweak behaviors to be culturally aware or sensitive toward others, but essentially, they are always themselves. Don’t be afraid of being yourself. You do you.
3. Support Your Team | Finally, support your team. This can take many forms, but the more you can demonstrate that you are there to help them be successful – both individually and as a team – the more they’ll trust you. Have your team’s back – even if they make a mistake. This doesn’t mean don’t hold people accountable - it means support and challenge your staff. Make sure mistakes are “teachable moments” not things the team needs to hide. When your team is more worried about screwing up than being successful, their energy will go into protecting themselves and innovation and excellence will take a back seat. Advocate for your team. Talk them up to others to help your team establish credibility across campus. Go to bat for them when necessary to minimize budget cuts or help them get the resources they need to be more successful. Help them solve the problems that are preventing them from doing their jobs or excelling in their roles.
Ask for your team’s input and use it. Let them know they are an integral part of the process; not cogs to get your or the administrations bidding done. Be clear about expectation and goals, but give them the autonomy to do their jobs. You may be their supervisor, but that doesn’t mean your way to accomplish everything in your department is the best way. Respect their opinions and ideas. Even if you don't use every suggestion, make sure they know you’re doing this together. The more you trust your team to do their jobs, the more they’ll trust you.
Ultimately remember that trust isn’t something that you get just because you’re a manager, it’s something you earn. It’s also something you have to work on consistently. Warren Buffett sums this up neatly - “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Build a reputation of trust, then continue to maintain it. Your team’s success and your success depends on it.