Project Management

Intentional Trust

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The Scenario: 

Sean, a new leader of a small team of experienced project managers, shows up for his weekly 1:1 with his manager, Annette.

“Sean, you look really tired.”

“Yeah, a late night.”


“I was working on the Artemis project plan.”

“Isn’t Artemis Jac’s project?” Annette asked.


“Why are you working on Jac’s plan?”

“Well, Jac isn’t doing it the way I’d do it, so I told Jac I’d take a cut at it.”

“Jac is really competent, what’s wrong with her plan?”

“Well, it’s…” Sean fumbled for words that would justify his action.

“Sean, do you trust Jac?”

“Of course I do.”

“Really?” Annette asked.

“Um, yeah.”

“Sean, I’m not sure that your words match your actions.”

The Message:

You’ve likely known a Sean (or are a Sean yourself)--a leader who believes he can do things better than his followers and, rather than trusting his followers to get things done, will burn the midnight oil doing it himself. “I can get it done by myself faster,” “I understand the problem better,” “I know what management is expecting,” are all common excuses as to why a leader does work that his or her followers could (and should) be doing. Sure, there may be some truth to each excuse, but there’s a massive problem for those leaders looking to grow.

It doesn’t scale and your upward mobility as a leader will be limited.

Leaders are in leadership roles for a reason, to deliver more results with a team than the leader could do alone. Crucial to making this happen is the leader’s ability to trust his or her followers. Trust more and you get more done, have a happier team, and achieve better life balance. Trust less and, well, you get the point.

Think you’re struggling with trusting your followers? Look at these 12 intentional trust tips and see if any of these resonate:

  1. Be intentional about your starting position – Some leaders take an initial position of assuming trust, while others take the position that trust must be earned. Neither is particularly good or bad, but be honest with yourself about your position and be open with followers about whether you trust is assumed or it must be earned.
  2. Be thoughtful about changing your position – Your trust in followers can change based on actions. A follower can start in a more trusted relationship but do things that erode the trust; similarly, trust can increase when actions that enhance trust occur. Observe recent actions and take them into account when assessing your degree of trust in a follower.
  3. Guidance follows trust – You can trust a follower but if the follower is new in a job, it’s your responsibility to ensure the follower has commensurate guidance to help him succeed. Confusing trust and guidance is a recipe for setting an inexperienced follower up for failure.
  4. Intentional empowerment helps right-size trust – In my intentional empowerment model I talk about four steps to empowerment: defining the problem to be solved and the owner, articulating guiding principles, ensuring agreement on key dates, and establishing a follow-up cadence. Someone still climbing the trust curve may be given a smaller problem to solve, more guiding principles, and a more frequent follow-up rhythm. Practice empowerment, but right-size the problem, your involvement and guidance.
  5. Trust doesn’t mean you relax accountability – While you can give followers latitude on execution, you need to ensure there is clear accountability for what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done by. Also remember to put a mutually understood follow-up rhythm in place (see point 4).
  6. Lean in more when you need to – When a crisis hits, the team needs to benefit from your experience. A follower who’s not well-equipped to manage through the crisis will need your wisdom to help navigate it, chart out a plan, and drive accountability. Also, you don’t want to have to explain to your boss why you didn’t engage more to prevent the crisis from escalating.
  7. Align on the what, advise on the how – Having a trusting relationship with your followers means you have clarity on what needs to be done but you don’t get dictatorial about how it needs to be done, unless there is a policy or regulatory reason that dictates the how. Usually there is more than one way to address a problem, and someone choosing a different path doesn’t make it wrong. Depending on the follower’s experience level, your degree of guidance might vary, so make the guidance commensurate with experience.
  8. Sometimes you have to let followers touch the stove – A huge component of the growth experience is failure, particularly with a follower who may have an unrealistic view of her capabilities. Be prepared with a teachable moment when you see a mistake coming to fruition. Then give the follower an opportunity to put the learning to use on future assignments.
  9. Trust doesn’t correlate to superiority – Being the leader doesn’t mean you necessarily know best about what needs to be done or how to do it. Be open to views that may be counter to yours and be thoughtful about the viability of alternate points of view. Do be cautious of extremes where you always or never accept alternate points of view. Always accepting other points of view can cause others to question your competence; never accepting other points of view can brand you as stubborn.
  10. Stay aligned on expectations – Maintaining trust means there is intentional expectation alignment. Both you and the follower need to keep in close communication when a change occurs which can impact current work. Neither leaders nor followers like to be surprised; your job is to establish an “early warning” culture where anyone can see something going awry which could cause expectation alignment. Don’t create an environment where followers avoid bringing issues to you that can impact expectations.
  11. Make changes when trust isn’t going to happen – Despite a leader’s best intentions to trust, some followers just never earn a leader’s trust. It may mean removing a project manager from a project, reducing his or her responsibilities, placing the follower on a performance improvement plan, or if all else fails, separation. Just remember that other followers are watching your actions, so being indecisive could erode your credibility with the rest of your team.
  12. Model the behavior – Building a trusting relationship means that you not only trust your followers but they trust you. If you want to build your trust in others, make sure you’re building your own trustworthiness and not doing anything that would cause others to be hesitant in trusting you.

The Consequences:  Not practicing intentional trust with your followers can lead to these consequences:

  • You’re more likely to micromanage – Not trusting followers means that you’ll likely over-function and do the job your followers should be doing.
  • You’ll frustrate your followers – Not demonstrating intentional trust means followers will be frustrated by your unwillingness to trust and will be less likely to want to follow you.
  • You won’t scale – Your lacking trust in followers means you’ll take more on yourself because you believe no one could get something done better than you, even if it means you’re chronically burning the midnight oil.  

The Next Steps: 

  • Review the above 12 tips on intentional trust.
  • Think about prior situations where you might have fallen short on any of the tips.
  • For any tips you’ve identified as needing work, put an action plan together to address those trust areas.
  • Use a trusted advisor to keep you accountable.
Posted on: July 08, 2022 08:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Perfectionism is often a source of mistrust.

Dear Lonnie
The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.

Thanks for sharing and for your 12 tips

I found particularly interesting the model you proposed for the delegation

Dear Lonnie,
This is what happened in our position, it takes time to implement this rule.
Thanks for Sharing

The tips are greatly appreciated! Thank you for sharing.

Thanks for sharing. tips are greatly appreciated.

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