friendly manager meeting with subordinate
Image: michaeljung/Adobe Stock

Establishing trust between employers and employees has always been critical for maintaining a supportive and healthy work environment. But with the onset of COVID-19, which accelerated the work-from-home era, managers and employees have been missing out on some of the regular social interactions. Zoom hasn’t quite been able to replace old-fashioned face-to-face exchanges.

Darryl Stickel, author of “Building Trust: Exceptional Leadership in an Uncertain World,” a practical handbook for employers interested in improving relationships with their employees, has spent his career on how trust is established. His company, Trust Unlimited, helps clients across industries — from financial services to telecoms to tech.

TechRepublic spoke to Stickel about what he sees as missteps managers have made in the remote-work era, and how employers can strengthen trust with employees.

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: Why women are leaving their jobs and how to get them back to work (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

TechRepublic interviews Darryl Stickel, trust expert

You’ve written that trust is at an all-time low. How has this happened?

I believe trust has a combination of uncertainty and vulnerability. And we have seen profound spikes in uncertainty all over the place. That’s partly technological advancement, but more so, it’s changes in cultural norms and values. We’re seeing changes in how we work, in part because of the pandemic. But even prior to that, we were seeing a rise in the number of virtual teams. And if we think about trust as a combination of uncertainty and vulnerability, leaders tend to be very vulnerable — because the more senior we become, the less direct control we have over outcomes, the more dependent we are on the people that we lead to achieve things. So when you combine that with a massive spike in uncertainty, it creates profound discomfort for leaders.

How has this changed since COVID-19 ushered in the remote-work era? Has it exacerbated problems with trust?

Well, part of the challenge is that a lot of our leadership models are very old, dated, and they rely on a sort of command-and-control approach, which is just not very functional. And in an environment where change is happening quickly, they got forced into a place where some of them were still trying to engage in command-and-control approaches.

With the pace of change, by the time I’ve issued an order, it’s obsolete. So what I really need is to have other people with the ability to make decisions. And I need to adopt a different type of leadership approach where I’m empowering those I lead, where I’m creating an environment where they feel capable of making decisions, and where technology actually augments that rather than being used to monitor.

Employers have used a range of strategies with remote employees — from total flexibility to having them account for their entire schedule. How do these different approaches affect trust in the workplace?

I can tell you that the fastest way to get someone to not trust you is to indicate in some way that you don’t trust them. Monitoring them is, again, the response to heightened uncertainty for leaders who used to be able to wander around to see people working – now they’re terrified. You know, what, if those people aren’t working? What is my role, really, if I’m not, you know, checking everyone’s work?

We’re seeing leaders really trying to figure out where they sit or if they shift. There’s great work done on situational leadership that suggests that for some employees, we need to have more guidance for coaching. For others, we need to just let them give them what they need and let them run with it.

But I think in general we should be looking at trying to find ways of looking at peoples having production goals rather than timelines. So rather than monitoring people to make sure that they’re sitting at their keyboard, we should be saying what’s a reasonable amount of productivity? And then let you figure out how to close the gap between where you are and where you need to be.

So are you saying that some of this comes down to individual personalities and preferences? Should employers keep these in mind?

Absolutely. Some of us require more structure and prefer to have a more hands on approach. Part of the issue here is that we often don’t include others in the definition of what excellence looks like. And so we make assumptions about what good leadership looks like, when in reality, it may be different for different people.

I talk about pulling different levers to build trust. And in almost every instance, the first step is to include the other person in the conversation. I think there’s a lot of miscommunication and there’s this belief that there’s a silver bullet. There just isn’t one.

How can leaders gain trust from employees?

I talk about trying to close the gap between how much we should be trusted and how much we actually are. And we do that through increased self-awareness and more transparency and better communication with other people. And as we become more aware of trust, we can actually become more trustworthy.

When I work with leaders, I’ll ask them, you know, who do you trust? And I get these sort of close personal relationships. So best friends, spouse, sibling, parents, that kind of stuff. And the reality is, we trust people all the time. It’s the social lubricant that allows society to function. When I flip the question and I say, Who trusts you? I get these long pauses and then people say, “How would they know?” For me, it goes back to the definition. So I believe that trust is the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable or we don’t know completely what the other party’s going to do. And so there’s elements of uncertainty and vulnerability in there.

How can you tell if your employees trust you?

If they give me clear, honest feedback. Do they take risks? Are they, you know, we’re talking about technology — are they willing to make mistakes and fail? Because that’s what it takes to innovate. Do they tell me what their real development means or what challenges? Or do they actually deliver bad news to me or am I the last to know?

If your people are pushing to the limit of their abilities, they should be making mistakes. If they’re playing it safe, if they’re being extremely cautious, it means the trust levels are low.

What are some concrete ways managers or leaders can model vulnerability?

They can be open and honest with their subordinates about what success looks like for them, what’s at stake for them, what their goals and objectives are. Acknowledging that they’ve made mistakes and giving examples of those.

If we’re talking about a virtual team, a leader being able to say to their subordinates, “Look, here’s how I get evaluated, so I need  to know what’s going on for you. I also need to be able to step in, in a timely manner if things are not going well. I know that people are less likely to ask for help in virtual settings than they are in physical co-located settings, so let’s talk together about how you can signal me when you need help in a timely way.”

The pandemic exposed a mental health crisis, and many employees are struggling at work. How can employers establish trust so employees can share what’s really going on?

When leaders are thinking about trusting subordinates, the variables that they’re most concerned about is his competence ability. But when subordinates are thinking about trusting a leaf, or the thing that carries the heaviest weight, they ask: Does my leader have my best interest at heart? Do they have my back? And that seems to be the piece that we’ve lost the most.

I wonder how this works with freelancers — so many companies now hire contract workers. Is it even tougher in these cases?

I’ve worked with a couple of tech companies. Often, they hire people who are overwhelmingly skilled in technology and the overlap is not always profound between those skills and the interpersonal skills. So this I find environments that are like the one you’re describing incredibly challenging, because the context is set up for you to be treated like a mercenary. Where people aren’t engaged with you or considerate of your needs or feelings, because they view you as replaceable. They haven’t invested in the relationship the same way that you have.

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Part of the challenge is to show benevolence because it will trigger a reciprocal response.

What can managers say to strengthen relationships with all types of employees?

The fastest way to build trust is through showing a little bit of vulnerability yourself and showing some benevolence.

Often that benevolence can come in the form of a conversation. We give people scripts. So you and I are talking, and I say, “You know, I’m trying to be more intentional about the relationships that I build, and I’ve been told that benevolence is really important for that. But building stronger relationships means that I’ve got somebody else’s interests at heart, which makes sense to me, but sometimes I feel like I don’t land. Have you ever experienced that?”

And so now I’m engaging you in that conversation, and you’re starting to think about it. And then I say, “Well, what would it look like? You know, have you ever had someone really outside of your back? And what did they do and how does that feel?” Now I’m getting a clearer sense of the road map to what you think benevolence looks like and what your experience of that was.

Then I can narrow the funnel even further, and I can say “What does success look like for you and how may I help you?” And so now we’ve actually made a concrete possible set of actions that we can take where I can demonstrate that people.

So many leaders just think if they make one mistake, they’re done. They’ve got to micromanage the crap out of you, and they’re paranoid. They don’t create an environment where they can say “You know what? I want to foster your growth and development. That means you’re going to make mistakes or I’m going to help you push to the limit of your abilities and grow and develop as a writer, as a person. That means I’m going to put you in settings where you may not be comfortable and things may go wrong, and that’s going to be completely fine.”

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