Mar 6, 2020

As a leader, you’ve done all the essential work. You’re honest, you follow through, you demonstrate integrity, you listen and you care. The hard work of building trust is starting to pay off and now people are really speaking up. Well done!  After working with thousands of leaders over the last 20 years let me offer my perspective: trust changes what people talk about and why. Two things stand out… they begin to express their frustrations and concerns, and share ideas and aspirations. They do this in large part because they want you to act.  They showed courage, now you show action. This is real progress!  

But, and it seems like there’s always a but…before long, you realize that building trust and empowering people to speak up puts you in a tough spot. How can you possibly begin to act on all the perspectives and concerns you are now aware of?  As any leader who’s been in the job for more than 5 minutes knows, it is impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. And make no mistake, when people speak up, they do have expectations.

Now comes the hard part- keeping trust high enough to keep the dialogue going, while recognizing that you can’t possibly act on everything- knowing that people trust leaders who meet their expectations.  Having observed this recently, let me share with you a couple of traps that keep me up at night and offer some ideas to help. 

Trust Will Challenge You

While it’s great that people are speaking up, much of what you hear you may disagree with, doesn’t make sense, or causes you to want to change their minds. Or even worse, it just hurts, and you feel defensive. What’s needed here?  Hold it together, big time. If you react, you will be seen as defensive, unwilling to change, and a waste of time. And, it only gets better. In my experience people rarely fail to let others know just how uncomfortable you got hearing “the truth”.  It’s like they are sending a warning to the rest of the tribe- “Be careful, I tried, and it didn’t go well!”

Your next move:  Dig into their thinking.  Unpack what they are basing their views on.  Dig into the data, examples or observations and how they reached their conclusions.  Then emphasize that what you have heard from them matters. Be clear on how it matters.  Listening isn’t agreeing.  That’s a trap.  People need to know that trusting you enough to be open, doesn’t mean you buy in to “their truth”.  

What it does mean is that they have become partners in a real collaboration.  The kind where you engage the issues that are too often avoided, wrestle and learn from each other’s differences and face the conflicts that must be surfaced and dealt with.  Expect the tension to go up in this process, but it’s creative tension. The kind that research shows leads to better ideas and real solutions. Over time, people realize that trust opens the door to a different kind of relationship.  One that asks a lot from them, and you. That’s the big payoff.

Change the Way You Lead

What people need to embrace about trust and speaking up is that they become part of what I call Collaborative Leadership. By speaking up, their part has just begun.  Speaking up is not about passing the baton to you so you can solve it for them. That’s a traditional notion of leadership. The leader knows what to do. The leader is responsible.  The leader has the answers, they simply need people to follow along and execute. It’s what my friend Dean Williams at Harvard’s Kennedy School calls “Big Man /Big Woman leadership”. It may have worked in simpler times or for routine problems, but today’s complex challenges require something different.  And yet, the leader/follower mindset persists.

I work hard to distinguish Traditional from Collaborative Leadership because, as human beings, we unconsciously hold archaic notions of leadership.  Deep within all of us there are powerful hopes and aspirations that some leader, somewhere, knows what to do. As the leader, they will do the hard work for us.   If we aren’t aware of this, it’s easy to get played by people. Or worse yet, begin to believe we really do have the best answers. That’s a trap. 

Your next move:  Change the leadership mindset.  Trust got you to first base and people are speaking up, but you’ve got to move quickly to help them see that leadership is a shared responsibility.  Be prepared to let go of some control and remember that it’s a big step for people to think differently about leadership. I recently worked with a group of leaders who challenged me hard on this subject.  They spoke about leaders they admired and took great pride in following. They wanted me to see that Traditional Leadership really was the “right way”. I listened and after hearing their examples I realized that the leaders they “followed” were not traditional at all.  In fact, they embodied much of what it means to be a Collaborative Leader. Their admired leaders let go of control, shared the work of leadership and challenged them to think through and drive real change.  

What this conversation surfaced was the grip that Traditional Leadership continues to have on the collective psyche. These proponents of Traditional Leadership slowly came to terms with the irony of it all.  The leaders they admired as “traditional” had in fact challenged and empowered them to lead—not follow.   As a leader, you can do likewise.  Recognize and change the traditional mindset.  Push people to look within, rather than up above for leadership, new behaviors will follow, and you will create more value for people and the business.  

Trust.  Don’t Blow It!

Here’s what stands out when leaders learn the real purpose of trust.  They see that it’s just the first step and they don’t blow it by stopping there.  They keep pushing. They let go of the illusion of control and embrace a collaborative way of leading.  They understand that if leadership isn’t shared, it’s fragile at best.  

I never tire of hearing people’s sense of surprise when they see that things really can change.  Most tell me that it’s journey and a work in progress. But worth the struggle. They come to feel different about the world and themselves.