Trust during a pandemic is hard to get and hard to earn

The theme I have heard most from managers this year is the difficulty of building trust with staff during a period of uncertainty. Subordinates crave certainty – or seem to – but managers can’t deliver when the future is murky and everything can change so quickly. They fear that it erodes trust, since managers look less than honest, holding things back. Of course, if they had built more trust in the past, the situation today might be less awkward.

Trust is abstract and how to build it can seem confusing, even bewildering. Too often we assume trust flows from competence, says Jordan Berman, a vice-president at the Canadian pharmaceutical company #Apotex and author of the recent book The Trust Trifecta. If you can get stuff done, supposedly people will trust you. But he says that focus on the “what” of managerial life – goals and achievements – ignores the equally important “how,” the manner in which we accomplish our objectives.

On that score, he says people trust you when they feel they “know” you; feel you’re being straight with them; and when you talk and behave in a consistent manner. That leads to the three elements of his trust trifecta: communicating consistently, transparently, and authentically.

In horse racing, a trifecta requires picking which horses will place first, second and third. For managers seeking trust, the trifecta also requires getting the order straight: Authenticity places first, transparency a close second, and consistency third.

In today’s environment, consistency is the most challenging, so it’s comforting to view it in third place. Some managers have tried to compensate by falling back on the second “horse” in this race, transparency – being open about what they know and don’t. But at times, when jobs might have to be cut or the company’s existence might well be threatened, transparency disappears. Doors are shut for secret meetings and vagueness or silence rules.

Authenticity seems less threatened by the pandemic’s complications to managerial lives. But interestingly, Mr. Berman over the years has found authenticity is where leaders struggle the most. They are afraid to let their guard down and be who they are naturally because it seems to violate the executive code. He doesn’t suggest you become an open book and bare your soul routinely to colleagues. But he does urge you to convey the same compassion, sincerity and honesty when you speak in a professional setting as in conversations with close friends.

If #pandemic uncertainty has been plaguing you, here’s a positive way to reframe that nemesis. Leadership coach Dan Rockwell says it brings seven advantages:

  1. Develops character: We gain from roadblocks and adversity. Uncertainty is an opportunity to find your aspirational self, Mr. Rockwell suggests.
  2. Sifts priorities: Uncertainty exposes what really matters.
  3. Provides rich context for gratitude to others: Gratitude involves noticing and acknowledging benefits or advantages others provide. We’re more likely to notice in uncertain times, as we’re more alert. “Gratitude matters most when it’s uncomfortable,” he says.
  4. Disrupts assumptions: And when assumptions dissolve, thinking can begin. New pathways open up.
  5. Presents opportunities for humility: “Certainty invites arrogance and arrogance makes us intolerable,” he says. “Humility opens hearts and minds.”
  6. Provides a reality check: Uncertainty illuminates illusions. It shows us the way things truly are.
  7. Creates intense focus on the next step: He recalls walking on a rocky riverbed in a U.S. state park this summer, having to be very careful about each step. It forced him to put the final destination aside and focus on each successive step.

Those are real advantages but, of course, uncertainty can be deeply frustrating. Managers have felt out of control, hostage to a #virus and governments’ response to that virus. Managers feel a responsibility to pierce that uncertainty and provide a clear message to staff, but can’t.

In many cases, they are exaggerating their own responsibility for clarity beyond what subordinates expect in this unprecedented situation. As with Mr. Rockwell taking those ginger steps along the rocky riverbed, subordinates probably only want clarity on the next step – and if not exactly how to make that step, what the possibilities are.

Michelle Buck, a clinical professor of leadership at the #Kellogg School at Northwestern University, suggests you give particular attention at this time to reflection, considering what drives you and the organization. “If everything around us that has been familiar in terms of the status quo is falling apart, we need something to hold onto,” she told a university webinar. “Our values and purpose can give us consistency.”

She also urges you to get out of black-and-white thinking with its either-or underpinnings and embrace a more holistic “both/and” framework. Think creatively, combining possibilities rather than going overboard on one solution. In uncertain times, that gives you a more balanced way forward. “Resist the temptation to think that there’s only one solution to any challenge we face,” she says.

This has been a year of unusual uncertainty for managers. That will probably continue well into 2021. Build trust through the trifecta formula, accept you can’t make the uncertainty magically go away, and recognize with it comes some advantages in character building and devising next steps.

HARVEY SCHACHTER

SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL

PUBLISHED DECEMBER 12, 2020

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