Leading with Trust

The Most Important Decision Every Leader Must Make

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Leaders are faced with myriad decisions in any given day, week, month, or year. Questions such as these fill our days: What’s the right strategy for our organization? What are my most important priorities? Who is the right person for this job? How much time do we allocate to this project? How much money should we spend? Some are big, some are small. Some carry great significance; others not so much. Some days there are more decisions to make and others there are less. But one thing is constant: there are always decisions to be made.

I would argue there is one decision more important than any other you face, and the way you respond to that decision will shape the course of all the others you make. What is that decision? It’s the decision to trust.

We all have moments of trust where we can decide to move toward connecting, engaging, and trusting one another. Or we can decide to move away from one another by choosing fear, distrust, self-protection, control, or ego. Since a large degree of leadership is about accomplishing work through others, leaders must trust and depend on people at some point. It’s impossible to do everything on your own, and besides, it’s undemocratic and boring to do it all yourself!

Since trusting others is a requirement of leadership, the question then becomes, How do I know who to trust and how much to trust them?

Deciding Who to Trust

You can gauge a person’s trustworthiness by how their behavior exemplifies the ABCDs of trust.

A is for AbleDemonstrating Competence. People who possess the skills, knowledge, and expertise for their roles earn trust. Able individuals demonstrate their competence by having a track record of success. They consistently achieve their goals and can be counted on to solve problems and make good decisions.

B is BelievableActing with Integrity. Integrity is at the heart of trustworthiness and it’s impossible to be fully trusted without it. High integrity people are honest, tell the truth, admit their mistakes, and act in alignment with their values and those of the organization. They walk the talk.

C is for ConnectedCaring about Others. Trustworthy people value relationships. They care about others and act in ways that nurture those relationships. Connected people establish rapport with others by finding common ground and mutual interests. They share information about themselves and the organization in a transparent fashion, trusting others to use information wisely. Most of all, connected people are others-focused. They place the needs of others ahead of their own.

D is for DependableHonoring Commitments. Fulfilling promises, maintaining reliability, and being accountable are critical aspects of being dependable. Trustworthy individuals do what they say they’re going to do. They don’t shirk their responsibilities or hold themselves to a different (i.e., lower) standard than their teammates.

Deciding How Much to Trust

It’s important to understand you put yourself at risk when you trust another person. You run the risk of that person disappointing you, not following through, or worse case, purposely betraying or taking advantage of you. Your willingness to accept vulnerability is determined by the interplay of several variables including your personality, values, life experiences (especially early childhood), and of course, the situation at hand. Only you can determine how vulnerable you’re willing to be when extending trust.

A helpful way to consider how much to trust someone is to view the situation through what I call The Window of Trust. Based on the person’s trustworthiness (how their behavior demonstrates the ABCDs of trust), and your willingness to be vulnerable (accept risk), you can choose how wide to open your window of trust. The greater a person demonstrates trustworthiness, combined with a greater willingness to be vulnerable on your part, means the more you can open the window of trust.

The goal is not to have a wide-open window of trust for all relationships. The goal is to open it as wide as appropriate for a relationship given its specific context or situation.

All healthy relationships are based on trust. Whether it’s a short-term relationship with a vendor providing you a one-time service, or a lifetime commitment to the person you marry, you must open the window of trust as wide as possible to help the relationship reach its full potential.

Too Many Priorities? 3 Tips to Focus on What Matters Most

overwhelmed-350x350Do you feel like you have too many priorities to accomplish at work? Yeah, me too. It seems to be all the rage these days, although I think most of us would rather not be part of this popular cultural trend. Most professionals I speak with struggle with the same sort of issues: the rapid pace of change, tight organizational budgets that force us to do more with less, and trying to encourage the growth and development of our team members in flat organizations with limited mobility.

I took on an increased scope of responsibility this year, and as the year winds down and I reflect on how I invested my time and energy, I’ve realized my focus was diffused over too many competing priorities. It left me a bit unsatisfied with my level of effectiveness, so I want to enter 2017 with a renewed focus on channeling my efforts into the most important activities that will drive the highest levels of impact.

If you find yourself in the same boat as me, then maybe you can benefit from the following three steps I’m going to take to renew my focus in the coming year:

Acknowledge you’re not serving yourself or your team—It took me awhile to recognize this truth. I kept expecting the white water of change to smooth out at some point, and when that happened, I’d be able to refocus and feel more in control of my efforts. News Flash—change isn’t going to stop! The constant pace of change makes it even more important to be crystal clear on your top priorities. Having a fewclear priorities gives you the flexibility to deal with new ones as they arise without causing you to drown in a sea of work. You, and your team, deserves your full attention and focus. Taking on too much dilutes your leadership effectiveness.

Assess where to focus your energy—We need to focus our leadership on the most important areas that will have the greatest impact on our teams and organizations. Looking at importance and impact through the lens of a 2 x 2 grid can help us decide which priorities deserve our focus.

Obviously, our primary focus should be on those initiatives that are of the highest importance and carry the most impact. A prerequisite is to first determine what important and impact means for your particular situation. Your definition of important and impact will likely differ from mine depending on the needs of your team or organization. But whatever activities qualify for this quadrant, that’s your sweet spot. That’s where you add the most value as a leader.

The opposing quadrant, low importance/low impact, are activities you need to discard or delegate. Those are the projects that don’t warrant your time and attention. Getting rid of these activities can be challenging. They may be something you personally enjoy doing, are impact-vs-importancefun, and may have even served an important purpose at one time. If these activities still carry a modicum of importance and impact, delegate them to someone who can make them his/her primary focus. If not, jettison them. They’re holding you back.

The toughest ones to figure out are the other two quadrants: high impact/low importance and high importance/low impact. These require analysis and decision-making. If the activity provides a high level of impact, but isn’t that important, you have to ask yourself why that’s the case. To help you make a decision, estimate the return on investment if you devote your energy to this activity. If the ROI is there (the impact makes it worth doing), delegate it to someone who can make it a primary focus. If the ROI isn’t there, discard it.

If an activity is important but carries low impact, it’s likely something that isn’t urgent but needs attention at some point in time. Prioritize these activities, get them scheduled out, and/or assign them to someone else to manage. These activities are important, but you have to keep your primary focus on those activities that are of higher importance and carry greater impact.

Act—This is the final step. Using the criteria above, you have to take action and make decisions about where to invest your time and energy. You may have to give up some pet projects in lieu of other initiatives that warrant more of your leadership focus. It may also involve some uncomfortable changes for your team members. Perhaps you may need to realign reporting lines or restructure your team to help you, and them, focus on the most important and impactful areas of the business. This isn’t a one and done process. Throughout the year you’ll need to periodically reassess your priorities and make necessary adjustments.

Feel free to leave a comment with your reactions or additional thoughts on how you handle the challenge of focusing your energies on the activities that drive the most value.

Got Ethics? The 5 Principles of Ethical Leaders

Got EthicsThere is only one place where people don’t have any problems—the cemetery. Dead people don’t have any problems, but for people like you and me, we’ve got problems! The question is, do we have ethics? Do we have the moral principles or values in place to guide our decisions when faced with ethical dilemmas or difficult situations?

One of my favorite books is The Power of Ethical Management, written by Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale. In their book, Blanchard and Peale discuss the five principles of ethical decision-making which they call the “Five P’s of Ethical Power.” I find myself returning to these principles time and again when faced with challenging decisions. Hopefully they can be as helpful to you as they have been for me.

Purpose—Your purpose is the road you choose to travel, the meaning and direction of your life. It’s the driving force of why you do what you do. For some it may be rooted in their spiritual faith. Others may find their purpose is something they feel called to do, such as serving those in need, raising responsible children, or leaving the world a better place than they found it. Aligning the activities of your life according to your purpose gives you a clear sense of direction, so when you’re faced with challenging circumstances or difficult decisions, you’re able to filter those occasions through the lens of your purpose and make choices that keep you on track.

Pride—Unlike false pride, which stems from a distorted sense of self-importance that causes people to believe and act like they are better than others, a healthy sense of pride springs from a positive self-image and confidence in one’s abilities. A proper sense of pride mixed with a good dose of humility is the balance you’re seeking. Being driven by false pride causes you to seek the approval and acceptance of others which can overly influence you to take the easy way out when faced with a tough situation.

Patience—Patience is in short supply in our culture. We live in a hyper-connected, instantaneous world where virtually anything we want is just a click away. Blanchard and Peale describe patience as having a faith and belief that things will work out well, as long as we stick to our values and principles. Giving in to instant gratification is one of the biggest temptations we face and it causes us to make decisions that aren’t in alignment with our purpose and values. Enduring the struggles and challenges life throws our way helps develop the strength of our character. Much like prematurely opening a caterpillar cocoon leads to a weakened and under-developed butterfly, choosing the path of expediency leaves us with an under-developed character and weakens our ethical power.

Persistence—This component of ethical power is about staying the course and remaining true to your purpose and values. Persistence is about commitment, not interest. When you have interest in something, you do it when it’s convenient. When you’re committed, you do it no matter what! One of my favorite “Yoda-isms” from the Star Wars movies is “Do or do not. There is no try.” When it comes to making ethical decisions, there is never a right time to do the wrong thing. Persistence keeps us on the straight and narrow path.

Perspective—All the other elements of ethical power emanate from the core of perspective. Perspective is about having the big picture view of situations and understanding what’s truly important. Too often we make snap decisions in the heat of the moment and neglect to step back and examine the situation from a bigger perspective. Maintaining the proper perspective is also about paying attention to our inner-self and not just our task-oriented outer-self. Taking the time to enter each day with prayer, meditation, exercise, or solitude helps foster self-reflection which is needed to help us maintain the right perspective about life.

Many people believe there is a huge gray area between right and wrong and they use that as rationale to operate by situational ethics. What’s right in this situation may be wrong in the next. I don’t agree. I believe in most cases we can distinguish between right and wrong if we take the time to examine the situation and rely upon our ethical power.

So I ask you: Got ethics? Share your feedback or questions by leaving a comment.

Fire an Employee or Give Him Another Chance? Consider These 9 Factors

You're FiredAny leader who has let an employee go knows how excruciating it can be to make that decision. It’s one of the most difficult decisions a leader must make. Given the gravity of the decision, it’s not surprising that most leaders put it off to the bitter end. We like to hold out hope that with a little more discussion, time, or effort the employee can turn things around.

Sometimes our hope isn’t based in reality. It’s based in our desire of what we hope will happen, says Dr. Henry Cloud in his book Necessary Endings. Cloud points out leaders need to have objective reasons to hold out hope that the future performance of an employee is going to be better than the past. No matter how many times the employee says “I’ll do better next time,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I am committed this time,” hard evidence is needed to suggest something will change in his performance. Cloud encourages leaders to have a “reason to believe” an employee can or will improve and he offers the nine objective reasons listed below. I found them extremely helpful and think you will too:

  1. Verifiable Involvement in a Proven Change Process – If the employee is willing to commit to coaching, mentoring, or some other proven process that could help change his behavior, then there is reason to hope his performance has a chance of improving. Many times all it takes is an objective third-party to help a poor performer see what he can’t see for himself.
  2. Additional Structure – By and large, Cloud says, people don’t change without some sort of structure. It’s hard to rewrite old patterns in our brain and we need a detailed structure to help us create new brain patterns. What new structure would you put in place to ensure the employee’s behavior or performance changes?
  3. Monitoring Systems – You know the old saying: “What gets measured gets managed.” To have objective hope that someone is going to improve, it’s necessary to have a monitoring system in place to evaluate their progress over time.
  4. New Experiences and Skills – Sometimes a person’s performance is suffering because he lacks the skills necessary to succeed in the role. The leader needs to determine if the employee is capable of learning the new skills, and if so, give the employee the chance to improve. If the employee has been given all the training necessary and still isn’t performing, then it would be foolish to expect more is going to help.
  5. Self-sustaining Motivation – In case you haven’t yet learned, you really can’t motivate anyone. You can work to create an environment where a person’s motivation can flourish, but at the end of the day, the person has to be self-motivated. Cloud suggests leaders look at how much they have to drive the process. If you’re doing all the work to get the employee to improve and he’s just along for the ride, then it’s clear who has the problem. It’s not the employee; it’s you.
  6. Admission of Need – When you address performance problems with the employee, does he recognize and admit the need for improvement, or is there always an excuse or someone to blame? It’s virtually impossible to help someone improve his performance if he doesn’t recognize the need.
  7. The Presence of Support – It’s essential that a person is given support during a change process. A person who is committed to working on improving his performance would benefit from being surrounded by other high performers who model the behavior the struggling employee is desiring to achieve.
  8. Skilled Help – For there to be real hope for the future, Cloud points out there must be someone in the circle of help who knows what he is doing. Coaching, mentoring, or peer-to-peer help can be great, but the people providing the help need to be qualified and have a solid track record of success.
  9. Some Success – Change takes time and leaders need to have patience while the employee works to improve his performance. But there also has to be movement forward. The leader needs to see the employee making positive strides in the right direction. Only the leader can determine the right amount of time to give a person to show signs of success, but there should be some sort of definitive timeline to the development plan.

It’s hard for leaders to give up hope an employee can improve. But if our hope isn’t based on the reality of the employee’s performance, we end up doing ourselves and the employee a disservice by not addressing the truth. These nine factors provide an objective way for leaders to decide whether they need to let a poor performer go or if there is hope for improvement.

Are You Too Exhausted to be Truthful? 3 Strategies to Avoid Dishonesty

Fuel GaugeIt’s late on a Friday afternoon and you are feeling spent. You feel like you’re fried crispier than a piece of bacon on a greasy hot griddle. You are mentally and emotionally drained after a long week of work, yet you still have one important task you need to finish before you can start a weekend of much-needed rest and relaxation.

Your boss is expecting the updated project budget and you know she’s not going to be happy when she sees it. Despite your best efforts in managing the team, the project is over budget and it looks like the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

As you review the budget for what seems like the millionth time, you realize you could fudge the numbers a bit and shift some of the costs from the Implementation Team to the Design Team and it would make the overall budget look better. Who’s going to know? Besides, the Design Team consistently runs over budget and you usually take the heat for their mistakes. You could make this budget change, save yourself an hour’s work, start your weekend now, and avoid the wrath of your boss on Monday morning.

What do you do?

Well, according to research, you are likely setting yourself up to cheat and be dishonest. In this study, Dan Ariely (who has written about this subject in several of his books) and a team of researchers illustrated the connection between our level of self-control, resource depletion (mental/emotional), and the likelihood to cheat.

The gist of the experiments showed that participants who engaged in activities that depleted their self-control resources were more likely to cheat on subsequent tasks (rewarding themselves more than they actually earned), and even more alarming, were more likely to place themselves in tempting situations that resulted in them cheating even more!

So how does this apply to us as leaders? Well, anyone who has experience leading groups of people knows that leadership can be an energy draining and resource depleting activity. As a leader, nothing is more important than your integrity. All it takes is one moment of weakness to compromise your ethics and you’ve torpedoed your whole career.

Here are three practical, commonsense ways to avoid this dilemma:

1. Be intentional about recharging your batteries – This research, along with our practical experience, shows we can make bad decisions when our self-control resources are low. It stands to reason that the best way to prevent this from happening is to make sure our self-control resources stay high. We have to keep our batteries charged. All the things your mom told you growing up apply: get enough sleep, eat right, exercise, find a hobby, and engage in activities that nourish you mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I can hear some of you saying, “Easy for you to say, Randy, but you don’t understand my work environment. I’m expected to work 70-80+ hours a week, stay connected to work 24/7, and do whatever it takes to get the job done.” If that’s your situation then I have empathy for you. It must be miserable and I can see how easy it is to feel trapped, especially if you’re beholden to the large paycheck that’s usually used as an incentive to get people in those kinds of jobs. But remember, you have choices. They may be tough choices, like scaling back your lifestyle, seeking a new job, or changing careers, but you do have choices. It will likely take time and require some tough decisions, but don’t fool yourself by thinking there’s no way out. You have a choice.

2. Don’t make decisions when you’re tired or hangry – It’s important to know yourself well enough that you can tell when your self-control resources are running low. For many of us, self-control goes out the window when we’re tired or “hangry” (hungry + angry = hangry). This is certainly true for me personally. I can see a clear pattern of making not-so-good decisions when I’ve been in this kind of state.

If this is true for you as well, then we both know what to do: don’t make significant decisions when we’re in this vulnerable state. If at all possible, delay making the decision until you’ve had a chance to recharge your batteries. There is wisdom in the old adage of “needing to sleep on it” when faced with a significant decision. We think more clearly and are in a better state of mind when our self-control resources are on full rather than empty.

3. Avoid tempting situations, especially when you’re running on empty – It seems too obvious to even mention but it has to be called out: avoid tempting situations at all costs, especially if your self-control resources are running low. The frightening thing about this particular research study is that people in a resource depleted state were even more likely to expose themselves to tempting situations. It’s as if our “temptation radar” is degraded when our self-control resources are low; we don’t fully recognize the danger of the situation. Using the project budgeting example above, it would be better to let that task go for the day and revisit it on Monday morning, than settle for the quick, easy, and unethical strategy of fudging the numbers…even if it means getting chewed out by your boss for being late with the report. There is never a right time to do the wrong thing, and it’s never the right time to make an important decision when you’re tired, exhausted, or feeling mentally or emotionally drained.

Leaders are givers. We give people our time, energy, support, guidance, coaching, and many other things that can leave us feeling like we’re running on empty. When our tanks are empty we expose ourselves to making decisions that can damage our integrity and erode the trust of our followers. We need to keep our own tanks full, not only so we can give to others, but also to protect us from ourselves.

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