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March - 2009 - issue > People Manager
Trusting Relationships at Work
C Mahalingam (Mali)
Sunday, March 1, 2009
The leadership Guru, Prof. Warren Bennis speaks of four leadership competencies to be successful. And this is based on a study he did with 90 plus leaders with proven track record. According to him, what contrasts good managers and true leaders is that the latter affect the culture. They are also social architects of their organizations as they create and maintain values. After years of observation and conversation, Bennis defines the following competencies as crucial:
* Management of attention
* Management of meaning
* Management of trust
* Management of self

While all the four competencies are needed in the right proportion, I would keep the focus of this column on the 'management of trust'. If we take a look at what the industry is going through as a result of a slowing down economy, there is a lot of discomfort and disbelief that everyone is experiencing. At times like this, leaders across different levels - front line supervisors to the Chief Executive - are called upon to practice the management of trust more than any other competence.

Trust is Not Built Overnight
Trust, of course, is a key cornerstone of an organization’s culture, and it cannot be created overnight. Trust is built and strengthened by many small and big actions leaders in an organization perform day in and day out. Trust is often compared to fine chinaware. Like a beautiful piece of chinaware, trust must be handled with the care it deserves; once broken, it is extremely difficult to rebuild. Therefore, leaders have the extra burden to promote, preserve, and enhance trust in every way they can.

The Hungry Spirit: Seven Cardinal Principles of Trust Well-known author and speaker, Charles Handy lists seven cardinal principles of trust as they apply to organizations in his famous book The Hungry Spirit. According to him, trust is the result of human interaction - it is a dynamic, changing feeling based on the day-to-day experience of living and working with others. Let me briefly state these principles here:
l. There is no such thing as blind trust: You tend to trust those whom you know well. It is easier to build trust within small teams or work groups since people get to know each other very well.
2. Trust requires boundaries: Knowing the extent and limits of the colleagues' competence helps reassure employees of their trust in their colleagues.
3. Trust calls for constant learning: The ability to learn through growth and change is fundamental to trust. Fear stifles both learning and trust.
4. Trust is ruthless: Requires people to be trustworthy as otherwise organizations would have to establish additional systems of support and control
5. Trust is not impersonal: It requires bonding among individuals and 'buy-in' to the core values of the company
6. Trust and 'touch' go hand in hand: Face-to-face interaction is very important, especially in virtual organizations that we work in today.
7. Trust is built the old-fashioned way - you have to earn it: Positive experiences strengthen trust, negative experiences weaken it. Kouzes & Posner makes a very powerful point when they say: "If people do not believe in the messenger, they do not believe the message!" Over years, corporations worldwide have witnessed a decreasing trend in how much people trust their organizations and leaders. Since leadership matters, and more so in times of uncertainty than in times of stability, trust and credibility in relationships become much more pronounced now than ever before.

What Can Managers Do to Earn and Enjoy the Trust?
Interestingly enough, the answer to the above question is fairly simple! Managers build trust or break it every time they say something to or do something with their people. This makes life for some managers difficult, but for most of them easy. It revolves around some simple principles of relationship that managers follow with their teams, their people.

Firstly, how managers share information. It is no rocket science to know that people need information to act. Do we, as managers, share adequate information or hold back? Often enough employees 'figure out' a lot of things that can be made simple if only managers are thoughtful or considerate enough to share sufficient information in the first place.

Secondly, how managers share the assessment of risk. There is often an unfounded fear that if managers shared their assessment of risks involved, employees would take shelter and not deliver. When employees experience the risks and discover that the manager was aware of the same before hand, the motivation reaches the nadir, leaving the employees with a deep sense of hurt.

Thirdly, how managers exhibit their confidence. When managers 'entrust' a piece of work to a junior, but show through their behavior that they do not trust the junior, credibility breaks and breaks badly. Managers may communicate this inadvertently or otherwise, by micromanaging every little step along the way or by simultaneously asking another junior to do the same work without letting each of them know of it.

Fourthly, how managers handle the credit. When the work gets accomplished, does the manager ensure that the employee concerned gets the credit or passes it on to another 'favorite' of the manager or worse still shamelessly steals it himself, will determine his credibility.

Fifthly, when the employee fails to deliver for reasons beyond his or her control, how does the manager view and treat this. Managers who empathize and assist in recovering from the situation build trust as opposed to those who write off the employee and brand them as not-trust-worthy!

Well, the above scenes are not uncommon and they actually characterize the daily work lives for people and their managers. And in such situations, what is right and just is a no brainer. But the individual manager’s attitude as accentuated by an unhealthy organizational culture often determines what course of action a manager chooses to.

Interestingly, in great companies, organizational values serve as an anchor for managers to validate their approach and behavior. Again, as with many other facets of culture, trust and credibility are things that percolate all the way top down. If managers realize their own success is intrinsically and intimately aligned with the success of their juniors and building trust is the first and most crucial step towards building this relationship, there will be a lot more productivity, retention, and excellence in organizations. Managers hold the key to achieving this.

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