Trusting Your Team

Dr Joanna Gray, PhD, BCom (Hons), LLB; Coach and Trainer, Momentum Management

Here’s a question for you: did you know that my PhD was about trust in organisations? Most of you probably don’t! So I feel that it’s time to address the topic with you now.

A great deal of Momentum training is about how to build your patients’ trust in you, and that’s been an easy concept for you to take on because you know that you’re trustworthy. There’s no leap of faith required here because you don’t have to worry that the trust is going to be misplaced; the only question is “how do I to demonstrate that trustworthiness to a patient?”

Trusting your team, however, is different. That’s because you’re aware on some level that you can’t know for sure that the team member is trustworthy; you certainly can’t know that in the same way that you know your own trustworthiness. By definition, assessments of trustworthiness are required in situations where the outcome is uncertain. It always therefore requires some level of risk: there’s a chance that things could go wrong.

Now, I’m NOT talking about “trust” as a substitute for “have you trained the staff member properly and have you followed up?” It’s not actual trust if you’re saying that you “trust Betty-Sue to manage my appointments” when what you really mean is “Betty-Sue has been told to manage my appointments and heaven help her if she doesn’t”. So I’m assuming here that thorough hiring, training and follow-up are all occurring as they should!

The point is then to identify the situations where real trust is required, and to make decisions about whether or not to place that trust. Naturally, some of you will be quite trusting, and others will struggle to place trust. We all have our patterns and habits when it comes to placing trust. Withholding trust can keep you safe from betrayal, but it also means that it’s almost impossible for you to feel supported, and that’s a very isolating and stressful way to run a business. Overly optimistic placement of trust can feel pleasant at the time, but can lead to betrayal of you and/or your business. Striking the right balance at any given moment is a useful skill and can be learnt.

Whether or not you are conscious of it, we judge a person’s trustworthiness based on our perceptions of:

  • their consistent trustworthiness over time
  • their honesty
  • their openness
  • their authenticity (alignment of words, actions and purported values)
  • their likeability
  • their passion
  • our perception of their benevolence towards us
  • our perception of how they are looking out for our interests
  • their competence
  • whether or not they’re trusted by others
  • whether or not they’re similar to us in some way

As you can see, some of these make sense in an employment context. For example, it makes sense to assess trustworthiness based on consistency over time, or whether or not we feel that they have our best interests at heart.

Others on the list are a bit less rational. Likeability, benevolence and similarity to us don’t logically impact on the person’s trustworthiness, but we have heuristics that help us make decisions in ways that aren’t always rational. And is an employee’s competence relevant to their trustworthiness or not? Probably not; it’s possible for someone to be an excellent DA and still steal from the cash tin.

To help you decide whether or not to place trust in team members, my advice is:

1. Make the question specific, not global

It’s difficult and unnecessary to worry about a decision like “Do I trust my staff?” It’s much easier and more useful to decide on a case-by-case basis. For example, “Do I trust Betty-Sue to lock up properly?” is a far more manageable decision. It allows you to think about a specific individual in a specific context.

Consider also whether you’re trusting the intention or the ability. For someone to be trustworthy, they need to have both positive intentions toward you, and the ability to meet your expectations. One without the other increases the risk of misplaced trust.

As you build skills in placing trust, the decisions start to become more global and instinctual. You’ll notice that you start trusting the team as a whole (or at least the majority of them), and need to think less about decisions relating to trustworthiness. You will thus start to feel a great deal more supported in the practice!

2. Assess the risk

There’s no perfect calculation that can tell you how an employee is likely to behave, so review the list above and ask yourself what you know about that employee and their likely trustworthiness. You might ask yourself:

“Does Betty-Sue have a history of making sensible decisions and being responsible?”

“Does Betty-Sue show strong attention to detail in other ways?”

“Does Betty-Sue seem to care about me and my practice?”

“Did Betty-Sue’s referees say that she was good with similar responsibilities in her last job?”

In addition, assess what could go wrong if the employee makes a mistake or turns out to be untrustworthy. If Betty-Sue doesn’t have a long enough history for you to tell whether or not to trust her to lock up, ask yourself “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

In this example, the worst thing that could happen is that the practice could get broken into, robbed, vandalised. Obviously that’s not good! In most situations, you’d err on the side of caution and give Betty-Sue smaller responsibilities while you assess her trustworthiness.

If you’re not sure how to assess the level of risk, think about how you would recover from misplaced trust. What would you do if Betty-Sue didn’t lock up, or Billy Bob stole from the cash tin? Most of the time the level of risk feels lower if we understand that we can recover from misplaced trust.

3. Weigh up the alternatives

If there are no other options than to take the risk (e.g. Betty-Sue is the only person available to lock up because your front office coordinator is away, you have to dash to the airport and the only other staff member is a temp), make sure there are safe-guards in place. For example, you might get Betty-Sue to call you as she’s locking up, or get someone you trust to swing past the practice and check that the door is locked. It’s OK to put safeguards in place while you learn about someone’s trustworthiness and reliability.

4. Reward and build on success

As an employee demonstrates consistent trustworthiness over time, show your appreciation. Enjoy feeling supported! And build up the amount of trust you place in that employee by increasing their responsibilities over time.

5. Learn from the situation

If placing trust went well, learn from it. What did you do well? What did the employee demonstrate about their trustworthiness that you could apply to that same employee again, or to another one in future?

If the trust was misplaced, learn from it. And note that I do NOT mean refusing to place trust in anyone ever again! If what you take from the situation as was reinforcement of your own fears about trust (“See, people aren’t trustworthy! I knew it!”), then you haven’t actually learnt anything at all! Analyse the situation: what could you have done differently to get a better result? Did you misread the situation, or the employee’s intentions or ability? Did you really set them up for success by giving them all the training and information they needed, or did you on some level sabotage the process? Now, take that learning and do something differently next time.

A final word

Everyone at some point feels let down by an employee they trusted. Because you’re not perfect, and neither are your employees, things will go wrong. So aim to learn the art of placing trust, and ask your friendly Momentum consultants for help if necessary.