Let’s say you’ve started the journey to become a better leader. Part of that journey, I strongly believe and argue in my essays, is to shift more and more to a culture of trust. To let go of our impulse to control our colleagues — and instead treat them as responsible adults.
So far, so good…
But what if you’ve done that — if you’ve given your trust — only to see that things did NOT work out as you hoped? Deadlines were missed, mistakes made, and goals not reached…
What can you do if your trust has been disappointed?
First of all, let me assure you that I feel you. I’ve been there myself, many times, and know how frustrating this is: You’ve mustered all your courage to try something new, only to see that your trust has been disappointed. You feel like a balloon that’s slowly losing air…
However, once we’ve acknowledged that this situation sucks, we need to be careful not to make things worse: we need to make sure we don’t overcorrect in the opposite direction!
This opposite direction is called “micromanagement” - and it’s a dead end!
Walk too far in that direction and you’ll see all sorts of tragedies along the road:
Micromanagement cannot be the answer. Trust is our only option.
So let’s see how we can make it work!
Most people have never worked this way: your employees never had a leader that gave them that much trust; and you, as well, might be new to this way of leadership.
👉 In practice: “Does this person know the rules? Do they know how we work here — and what this means in terms of responsibility and autonomy?”
Leading with trust doesn’t mean abandoning people. To be successful — together — your employees still need your support. They don’t need you to micromanage every aspect of their job. But they still need you as a trusted colleague / partner / coach!
👉 In practice: “Did the other person have enough information, including a clear description of what was expected? Did you offer your help?”
A senior employee can work in a much more self-directed way than an intern in their first week. Comparing these two extremes makes it pretty obvious that this is a spectrum. But we need to keep this in mind even in cases where it’s less obvious. (E.g. we may sometimes encounter a senior employee who, despite their seniority, still needs more guidance than average…)
👉 In practice: “Did the other person receive the kind of help and guidance they needed?”
Don’t overcorrect by going back to micromanagement. Instead, you can see the mistakes your employees made as valuable information: you can now better understand where they need more help.
👉 In practice: “What do you need to keep an eye on next time?”
Also true: mistakes are part of life. And not only your employees make them — but you as well! It’s crucial to keep your expectations realistic: a missing comma in a 3,000-word essay shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.
👉 In practice: “Is it worth addressing this? Or is it wiser to look past it?”
I cannot tell you how many times I thought I’d already fully understood what had happened. And how many of those times I was wrong…
We rarely know the full story. That’s why it pays off to start with curiosity, not blame.
👉 In practice: “Do you know with certainty what happened? If not: are you willing to drop your preconceived notions? Are you willing to be open and learn more?”
If I could rent a giant billboard and put just one piece of leadership advice on it, it would be this: “make clear agreements”. It’s incredible how many problems and conflicts we could avoid by making clearer agreements.
I will write more about agreements in the future, but here’s the gist of it: an agreement must clearly state (1) who is responsible (2) for what exactly and (3) until when — and it has to be written down!
👉 In practice: “Did you make a clear, unambiguous agreement? Can you make better, clearer agreements next time? Are both parties absolutely aware that keeping agreements is vital to the success of the organization?”
If you’re reading this, you already are on the right path: you want to build the relationships with your colleagues on trust instead of micromanagement. I salute and congratulate you on that!
But walking this path is something we all need to learn: your employees just as much as yourself!
The benefits — strong relationships with colleagues that take responsibility for their work — are more than worth it.