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Pitfalls of Trust-Based Leadership


Pitfalls of Trust-Based Leadership

Juan Pablo Ortiz, YesP Consulting

Trust is like the air we breathe -when it is present nobody really notices; when it is absent everybody notices.
Warren Buffet

There is plenty of recent research and buzz about the key role trust plays in building healthy cultures and well-performing organisations.  Trust is no longer the “soft” topic many once thought it to be. It is now recognised as a must-have for the sustainability of performance, innovation, agility, and well-being in individuals, teams and organisations.The need of transforming businesses from a paradigm of self-interest to one of contribution to society, together with the intrinsic value of developing human capital, should be reason enough to embrace trust as a necessary investment.  But if is not enough, you might as well do it simply because it comes with a strong business case and a high ROI.

As the hard value of trust becomes more accepted and mainstream, “trust” has become a favourite word in corporate values, town-hall speeches, leadership development frameworks, and CEO blogs. Some mean it.  Many, unfortunately, are just going through the motions.

I have witnessed many good things — some expected and others surprising— that happen when executives honestly attempt to bring more trust into the workplace, especially if this happens as a part of a concerted, sustained effort that reaches deep into the organisation and out to key stakeholders.  However, in working with organisations of all sizes and in multiple industries, I have also observed that despite all good intentions there are a number of frequent pitfalls to watch out for.  Let’s look at a few examples of “trust-based leadership” gone wrong.

1. Easy peasy? Trust and delegation as wishful thinking

Many people understand that trust is a powerful virtue that enables both individuals and organisations to grow and develop.  Consequently, it is tempting to believe,  that everything will become easier once we embrace trust as a key to a better future.  The truth is, you need to be ready for a bumpy ride to harvest the dividends of trust.  The path of building trust is one of openness and transparency which, in many organisations, are scary topics often avoided formally or informally.  It also, in most cases, challenges outdated power structures and tests our ability to manage conflict constructively and to face discomfort without running away from it.  Who said this would be easy?   A genuine “Yes!” to trust-based leadership is an act of courage.  Will it improve things?  Most likely, but the journey will not be smooth and only full of smiles. 

So, what happens when we underestimate what it takes?

On some occasions, we see leaders who enthusiastically adopt the vision of an organization where every employee has great potential and takes full responsibility,   but they hold an overly simplified belief that just by giving trust and encourage people to do their best, they will.  To some degree I honestly believe this is true.  However, a good-willed yet over-optimistic, ”delegate and get-out-of-the-way” approach falls flat pretty often. Let’s look att some typical examples:

One classic pattern are managers who continuously encourage others to take initiative and responsibility but do little to support peers and employees in solving their very concrete challenges in everyday work. The disconnect between abstract values to strive for and the realities of daily work are likely to generate more frustration than empowerment. These managers behave like cheerleaders who bring a lot of boom on game day, when stakes are high, but seldom show up for practice.  The result: cynicism and distrust.

Another common case are managers who display a preference for delegation when addressing most issues, regardless of the particular nature of each situation, the context in which it takes place, or the specific needs of those involved.  Take for instance when managers delegate people into new roles or areas of responsibility.  A pat on the back and a joyful “You can do this, I fully trust you.  Good luck!” are of little help if the task or purpose is unclear, if there is a lack of competence, or if there are strong restraining forces in either the cultural context or in existing processes that seriously diminish that person’s chances of success.

Like with all change efforts where mindsets and behaviors play a main role, success rates are low for well-intentioned “trust initiatives” that are too shallow or naive to stand the test of time.  A simplistic view of what trust really entails leads to failure for a number of reasons.  Here are a few:

  • Weak constituency (genuine commitment by key stakeholders) to sustain the journey over time and keeping it high on the agenda.  The result are short-lived, flavour-of-the-month efforts that may actually decrease trust and clarity levels in the organization.
  • Poor understanding of the current culture. Without this it is difficult to make the right choices and priorities and many times organisations end up simply trying to copy what worked (or didn’t) for other organisations.
  • Focusing more on the concepts than the behaviours.  Maybe you’ll have energised workshops and interesting discussions but little clarity will be found on what trust means in practice, very specifically, when people do their daily job and interact with one another. Very often, there is no systemic understanding and no systematic approach to adapt rewarding systems so that desired behaviours are effectively encouraged and reinforced.
  • Leaders who think that it is someone else  (i.e. employees, colleagues) that need to change.  It is a bad sign if top management is not engaged in actively working with their own beliefs and behaviors. Arrogance and trust don’t go well together.
  • Obviously, a lack of the required courage and resilience to really accomplish any real transformation.  Smoothing things over will most certainly lead you to a dead end.

The idea of trust-based leadership may sound pretty straightforward.  However, trust levels depend on multiple variables woven into the complexities of business and human interactions.  To embed trust in the core of an organisation’s culture is a lot more like drilling an orchestra to play a Beethoven symphony than merely pressing a doorbell button.  Attempting to reap the benefits of a high-trust work environment without putting in the time, effort and authenticity it requires from management is little more than a meaningless gamble.

Trust is the glue of life,
It is the most essential ingredient in effective communication.”
Stephen Covey

2. Surrender and avoidance disguised as high trust

This happens often when managers are insecure in their own role, perhaps not fully comfortable in their relationship with themselves, or struggling to find the right way to tap on other people’s potential.  Presenting themselves as “trustful” may sound good but is actually a deceptive strategy, sometimes unconscious, to cover up for their own limitations.  Basically, the manager is handing out mandate and accountability to others because they are not sure of what to do with their own. Even if this is unintentional, the manager could be driven by an internal focus to cope with his/her own demons, rather than a genuine and confident commitment to empowering and developing others.

A common symptom of this situation is when employees bypass their manager and deal on their own with new needs and challenges to the best of their abilities.  Normally they will not see the manager as a threat, but they will not count on him/her as someone they can rely on to make things better.  Things may still run pretty smoothly for some time thanks to the discretional effort of some people, but the manager’s own contribution is probably not very significant. With time, self-motivation is likely to  drop, while distrust and resentment towards management rise.  In other words, this is like abdicating from one’s leadership role in the name of trust. The underlying motto would be something like “I put a lot of trust in you because I don’t have a lot of trust in myself”.

3. Lack of clarity

While higher levels of trust may certainly make it easier to increase clarity, sometimes a minimum level of clarity needs to come first. All talk about trust may leave a bad taste in people’s mouths if it is difficult to grasp what leadership —or a particular manager— really wants, expects, and stands for.  It is not a matter of having managers come up with all the answers.  It is a matter of leadership making it easy for others to understand what they believe in, what they want to create, and how they think people can work together to make it happen.

If there is one thing people expect at least as much as feeling trusted, that would probably be understanding what is actually going on. Few things undermine trust and motivation in the long run more than a prolonged feeling of confusion, a work environment where priorities are unclear, and long discussions on important topics that do not translate into intelligible decisions and concrete actions.

We’ve all seen it.  A management team that becomes an unintended source of confusion for their organisation.  This is a big irony, of course, since the very purpose of management teams is, among other things, to increase clarity.  When conflicting interests between different functions and individuals are not properly dealt with in the executive team, these inconsistent messages get inevitably passed down to the entire organization.  This kind of behavior makes it harder for people to collaborate effectively at all levels, nurtures silo-mentality, and may open wounds in the organisation’s culture that are difficult to heal.

Increased trust should not come at the cost of less clarity.  And greater clarity does not mean all decisions and answers need to be pushed top-down.  Basically, trust-based leadership is not viable without credible role models.  True role models understand that clarity and trust need to go hand in hand. Don’t expect your employees to do something you are not prepared to do yourself.

What other pitfalls have you seen or experienced lurking behind the promise of high trust?  And when trust does get a foothold and deliver visible results, what made success possible?


by Juan Pablo Ortiz

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Photo by McKenna Phillips on Unsplash

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