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From Fear to Trust

The human spirit is incredible. This COVID-19 crisis is testing the best of our humanity. Yet, we see amazing examples of humanness, innovation, unity, and sacrifice. We continue to take care of each other, educate, and engage people. Recall a question I asked in part one of this series. When we get beyond the peak, imagine that your leadership, your humanness is on trial. Will you be convicted?

When a colleague appears grumpy on a video call or sends you a sharp email, let compassion be your response habit. It is likely that what they are feeling has nothing to do with you but instead their personal stresses and fears. We all have different experiences shaping our ability to deal with these stresses. We all have coping skills, some more developed, some less. Many may be feeling overwhelmed. Let your high human skills of empathy, kindness, and trust be your guide as you lead through this crisis.

The chances are that by now, we all know someone who has been affected by COVID-19. It has created fear in people. That fear flows to families, communities, and workplaces. This crisis thrust leaders, middle managers, and employees into distributed work environments almost overnight. While adapting to our new circumstances, these fears grew to unusually large proportions. Whether in a crisis or not, fear creates a narrowing of the mental aperture and makes you feel like you are looking through a soda-straw as individuals and as an organization. This paralysis makes us forget our established priorities, our habits, our caring for one another. When a crisis sets in, fear is its friend. Fear short-circuits our healthy support systems of family, friends, and work. Trust is the counterbalance to fear and helps open our mental aperture, see opportunities, and be more collaborative. Trust creates psychological safety and can be an incredible inoculant when bad things happen to good people and good organizations.

Trust can make you feel in the most positive and profound ways. In our closest relationships, it creates confidence, happiness, and peace. Think about your work environment though. When you meet new employees, how does the trust conversation go? “Welcome to the team, be on time, work hard, and you will earn our trust,” or something along those lines? The prevailing idea for most is that people must earn trust, but why? Why is trust not automatically given based solely on mutual understanding and expectations?

My colleague John O’Grady, who spurred much of the thought for this article, creates an insightful trust paradox. Imagine that you must travel for a work assignment. The Uber driver arrives at your house, and you get in the car with your luggage. You arrive at the airport, drop your bags with a skycap, greet the flight attendant, and say hello to the pilot. You settle in for a flight, having granted trust to people you likely have never met—the driver, skycap, pilot. Do you know who did the maintenance checks on the plane? We trust these people with our lives and often those of our families, without a second thought. Yet, in our most important and intimate relationships, we withhold trust. With our work colleagues, those whom we inherently rely on for success, we say to them, “you must earn my trust.”

Why?

Perhaps the socialization of trust has been wrong. What if we granted the same level of trust to the people closest to us as we do to the drivers and pilots in our lives? Imagine having high trust relationships that start with “you have my trust, and it can only be eroded or lost,” rather than earned. The buy-in and responsibility felt by the newly trusted employee go through the roof! So, too, does their commitment to maintaining that trust.

Instead of only talking about trust at the beginning of a relationship and then again only if it is broken or lost, make trust part of your team’s everyday conversations. Use the space in between to talk about how employees are demonstrating behavior that aligns with your expectations. And when you think there may be a trust issue arising, approach it from a position of authentic curiosity instead of being accusatory. Find the underlying reasons and collaboratively address them. Maintain trust behaviors and a trusted environment before it becomes broken. Be proactive!

Cultivating a culture of trust is like any leader’s action; it is a choice. To create work environments where trust flourishes, we need to understand how it works, the ways it is given, built, maintained, and how it becomes lost or broken. We can then teach ourselves how to act and react in ways that help cultivate trust, even in the most challenging situations.

Talking at the Speed of Trust

When you are asked a question and are uncertain of the answer, frustrated, or with little time, how do you respond? We all have short-circuited answers that allow us to respond and move on. Or so we think.  These so-called default answers such as let’s talk; we’ll have an answer soon; don’t ask, just get it done along with many others can damage the trust between leaders and employees. While these defaults might allow the leader to get an answer out quickly, they can unintentionally send signals of uncertainty and mistrust to the receiver. Put yourself on the receiving end of these defaults and consider the feelings and anxiety they may create:

  1. Let’s talk – uncertainty; is this positive or negative? How should the employee prepare?
  2. We’ll have an answer soon – ambiguous, soon next week or soon in a month?
  3. Don’t ask, just get it done! – lack of confidence, trust, and value in the employee.

Provide context and drive meaning to motivate people. Experts say it takes 500 milliseconds, or half a second, for sensory information from the outside world to incorporate into conscious experience. So, we can still get an answer out quickly, but if we take a few extra seconds to be more transparent, we can change the meaning of these defaults and bring clarity, understanding, and commitment to our work. Consider how the three defaults from above, but now with context, change the feeling:

  • Let’s talk about this at 4 pm. I like your idea of involving the staff because it gives them ownership of the process.  You specify why you like the idea, you set the expectation for time, and the employee feels valued.
  • We have not decided yet but will by the end of the day, Wednesday.  You are honest about not having decided and set expectations; the employee likely will feel—okay, Wednesday, got it.
  • Here is what we thought when we made the decision…  The employee is going to understand why and will likely give their best work because they feel like they are part of the team, trusted, and valued.

Trust comes from words and actions, but it must be felt by others to resonate. Take the few extra seconds to be transparent, honest, and only promise what you can deliver. Think about the work environments this crisis has created with back to back virtual meetings, online overload, and how these conditions are impacting your organization. Monitor your people for the signs of fatigue. Do what you can to remove uncertainty. Invest those few seconds to help your people feel, help them FEEL THE TRUST as you lead them through this crisis. Stay well, healthy, and safe!

American resolve is on full display in this COVID-19 crisis. You are practicing physical distancing, you are more socially engaged than ever though virtual platforms, and your humanness is emerging quite nicely. In fact, humanness is emerging across communities, cities, and the country, if not the world. We are seeing innovative ways to care for others, educate, and engage people. We are seeing rays of hope and glimmers of unity, where what matters is taking care of each other.

Custodial staff, grocers, big box and general retailers, and delivery services are but a few of those we may have taken for granted previously. Now, along with first responders and medical professionals, they are part of the critical path to survival. As families and individuals, we are adapting to new routines. It is not easy, and sadly there have been tragedies along the way, but we are resilient people. We will survive this event. That is what Americans do—overcome adversity, adapt, and prosper.

This crisis is putting tremendous demands on leaders. Prioritizing tasks and time can be overwhelming. Add in the complexities of a distributed workforce and the uncertainty of when and how we will pivot to a new normal, and you might feel like you are always firefighting; do not. Leaders can get too focused on the fires when optimally, they should also be looking to identify the new normal and find opportunities for growth, akin to gardening. Have you spent time with your people cultivating trust, empathy, and purpose?

Ask yourself if you are working IN your business where you are likely serving customers, solving problems, making decisions, and perhaps experiencing online fatigue. Or are you working ON your business to build or refine a strategy, develop or strengthen your organizational culture, and emphasizing personal and team development? Engaging your middle management is a practical way to help you raise your gaze, spend time in the garden working on your business, and prepare for the new normal. And above all, take care of your people. They are looking TO you for guidance and AT you as an example now more than ever.

Strengthen Your Core – Engage Your Middle Management.

If you want to take the pulse of your business, ask the middle managers–the heart and soul, the CORE of your company. Many say middle management is the hardest job in business. They straddle the strategic and tactical levels of an organization, oscillate their thinking to focus up and down, manage a finite set of resources, and are responsible for day-to-day operations more than any other manager or leader. More importantly, they are the critical link to employee recruiting and retention, and ultimately, mission or project success. Ask yourself the following:

  • How are you taking care of your middle management, your CORE?
  • Are your CORE’s thoughts and ideas aligned to the success of your business?
  • How are you engaging your CORE to leverage their experience?
  • Have you provided the resources for your CORE to do their job?

Here is how a chief executive officer (CEO) engaged his CORE in a real-world example.

When COVID-19 shut down schools and workplaces, network demand skyrocketed. I listened to a telecommunications CEO trying to contend with increasing demand, service performance to existing customers, and network capacity. Several ideas on how to manage the increasing demand started floating amongst the staff. Senior leaders were also bouncing off ideas with their teams. They found a solution, or so they thought. The problem was more significant than expected, and while the first solution was helpful, it was a band-aid.

The CEO scheduled a virtual meeting with his CORE, where he described the challenge. He listened to the back and forth between the participants as they reframed the problem and tested solutions. Time was of the essence. In one instance, the CORE made the CEO aware of the risks and implications of a solution that he would not have known had he not engaged his CORE. Again, time was critical. The session ended with a clearly understood problem statement and a three-phased solution with buy-in across the senior and middle management levels. The CORE could now coach their teams on execution.

This engagement was not an all-hands event; it was an interaction. Participants asked open-ended questions, which is a great way to get connected and focus on the real problem (or problems). While the problem was a firefighting activity, its outcome was gardening. Aside from finding a solution, the best effect, and enduring quality out of this CORE engagement was humanness. The leader was open, vulnerable, empathetic, and honest. As the meeting continued, others followed his example of humanness, and the trust meter reached new heights. The CEO strengthened his organizational culture and is continuing these sessions to get through this crisis and beyond. As their new normal takes shape, he will be able to blend the intentions of top leaders with the knowledge and experiences of frontline employees.

Spend time in your garden nurturing habits, values, and the new normal with the CORE of your organization. Remember, your CORE has the most direct and recent experience, and with their involvement comes ownership that can lead to influence across your teams. Leverage the trust, connection, and collaboration you have generated, and then let your CORE coach their teams.

The best leaders recognize that the best ideas do not always come from the top. Carving out time and space for you to engage your middle management is a low cost and secure investment with a high payoff. Get them involved in your gardening. Stay well, healthy, and safe!

The Crisis Lifecycle

Where Are You Looking?

Focus on priorities

The fears are real.  Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) is upon us and will affect every individual in some way.  Whether you are now tele-working from home with three kids “helping” you, working double shifts at the hospital, or simply hoping to feel better since your test came back positive, we will all be affected by COVID-19.  Leaders across the nation and throughout the world are implementing measures that were unfathomable only a short month ago. So, what now?  

More than ever, we need humanness—the quality of being human.  Your high human skills are being put to the test. Your empathy, trustworthiness, respect…those critical elements of leadership are in full view.  And while we continue to stress social distancing, it is time for a reframe. Say no to social distancing and yes to physical distancing. Yep, keep that six feet between you and others but allow your heart, mind, ideas, kindness, love, and words to flourish.  Be creative, leverage technology and lean in deep to be more socially connected more than ever. Who are you inviting for a virtual dinner this evening? 

The fears are real.  They cut across organizations and have a real impact on teams, families, and individuals.  Heed the experts’ advice on how to minimize exposure to COVID-19. When we get beyond the peak, imagine that your leadership, your humanness is on trial.  Will you be convicted?  

This series of articles will share a view of working through a crisis and where to look to shape success.  It is intended to help you assess your leadership, culture, and strategy by discussing four phases: react, adjust, manage, and prosper (RAMP), and how they may affect you and your organization or business.  

React is the crisis mode where we implement our continuity plans—establish communications, account for people, and focus on select tasks.  This is also the time to assess your planning assumptions, something that will continue throughout the crisis.   

Adjust will help identify what elements of the plan proved useful, what was unnecessary, and what was missing.  Consider key variables that will shape the new normal.

Manage, unleash the power of your middle management, the heart and soul of your organization.  Get ahead of the curve by framing likely new normal scenarios and key indicators.  Plan the reintegration of your employees with new opportunities in a new and perhaps unchartered territory, market, or mission space.    

Prosper is your adjustments and new opportunities, with a strengthened core of middle managers, ready for a new normal.  Improve your team’s post-crisis outcomes by using a simple set of intelligence and planning techniques that keep you agile and oriented on the future.

While your teams and organization attempt to settle into new routines, where are you looking?  The reaction to this crisis is still on-going. As we enter this second week of change, many are still refining, or in some cases creating, procedures.  You have met with your senior leaders or C-suite, established and communicated your priorities. Now, assess yourself and your organization’s situation: 

  • Priority 1 – care for those in your charge; what is the succession plan for you and employees who may fall ill?
  • What are your touch points with customers/clients/students—those you serve?
  • Are you organized correctly for the circumstances?
  • What functions continue; what functions stop?
  • How are you making and documenting decisions?
  • Who else needs to know?  

There are a host of questions surrounding you and your team’s reaction.  Keep asking and let your employees surprise you with their innovation. Moreover, appreciate your improved self and organizational cultural awareness by conducting this assessment.  This crisis is extremely fluid so keep a view on the reaction but don’t be afraid to “raze your gaze” to what might be next. On that note, do not fail to imagine. Be well, stay healthy and safe!