“I wish my boss trusted me more.” “If only they would give me some decision authority and empower me to get the job done, we’d be able to avoid messes like this in the future.” “Here we go again – management just ‘checking in’ on what we’ve been doing – more like inspecting to make sure it’s exactly the way they want it, because heaven help us if they were to just trust that we got the job done.” Do any of these refrains sound familiar? Perhaps you have said them yourself, frustrated by your boss’s lack of trust and empowerment. Or, perhaps you’ve been the subject of some of these frustrations, as your subordinate teammates vent their sentiment about a perceived lack of trust and empowerment placed in them by you. As leaders, how do we find a balance between giving our team autonomy and ownership, while also ensuring that we maintain intimate awareness and adherence to the norms, without ceding the ultimate responsibility for the teams’ culture, viability, and outcomes?
Hey friends, and welcome to the 3x5 Leadership podcast! My name is JJ Morgan, one of the members of the 3x5 Leadership team, and I’m excited to join you for Episode 12 of our show. Today, we are going to discuss a critical challenge for leaders – how to trust and empower your team responsibly and intentionally. This is a hard thing to do as a leader! Not only do people want to be trusted and empowered, but we as leaders should want to give that trust and empowerment! Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. At a practical level, this may be because we are too fixated on HOW something gets done, and refuse to allow room for an alternative way, or we have failed to properly articulate the WHAT and the WHY for the thing that needs to be accomplished. At a more emotional level, it may be our own pride and insecurity that stands in the way, where we feel that control is necessary to maintain our position, authority and influence as a leader. Finally, at an intuitive level it may be challenging because we feel that, while a person or team may be trustworthy, we just aren’t sure if we can responsibly give them the power to do something because we aren’t sure that they are prepared to handle it. In today’s episode, we’ll address each of these challenges as we outline a model for developing leaders within our team. Let’s get to it!
At 3x5 Leadership, we believe that intentional leaders create significant impacts. We’ve shared about this on our website, in our articles, and on this podcast. There are a multitude of ways in which we can create impacts, but one of the absolutely most potent ways is through developing other leaders. Josh just recently shared an article on a three-tiered approach to leader development that can be especially encouraging and powerful when we feel that we are in an exceptionally busy season as leaders. He addressed our example and impact as the foundation for leader development, the importance of taking a developmental approach as the middle tier, and how to structure and integrate dedicated developmental opportunities as that final tier. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find the link in the show notes, or you can go to our website at www.3x5leadership.com and read it. Trust me, it will be well worth your time. Today we’re going to unpack a little bit of the middle tier of that leader development framework – the importance of taking a developmental approach. I’ll unpack that with a four-step cycle that can enable us to build capable, confident, and competent leaders within our teams and organizations.
Recall those earlier statements – “I wish my boss trusted me more. If only they would grant me more decision authority and empower me to do my job.” These are the expressions of people who don’t feel trusted and empowered. If you’ve ever been in this situation before, you can relate to the emotional toll that it takes. Not only is it frustrating in the moment, it is also demoralizing, and can begin to fracture the efficacy and cohesion of a team. On the flip side, maybe you are a leader who is struggling to trust and empower your team; you have concerns that the risk is too significant, that the teammate is too immature or inexperienced, or that you are not yet at a point as an organization to cede control of some of these key initiatives to another person. Being on that side of the equation can be just as mentally and emotionally taxing and demoralizing.
How do we overcome this? Through ensuring that we first train and certify our team, and then trust and empower them. This concept came from a mentor and leader I had the privilege to work with a few years ago. As the leader of a large organization of several thousand people, he had to trust and empower subordinate leaders, otherwise the organization would come to a grinding halt. His entire ethos for ensuring that the organization not only kept moving in the right direction, but even more importantly, was an organization recognized for its effectiveness and culture, was summed up in the mantra of “train and certify, then trust and empower.” To help me easily understand the importance of putting those activities in that order, he once shared an analogy with me. Sitting in a mentor discussion with him, he shared – “JJ, I trust you. You’ve built a reputation that merits trust and have given me no reason to doubt that. With that said, if my daughter needed open heart surgery, I wouldn’t trust you within a mile of her with a scalpel. Why not? Because you have not been trained and certified. I don’t care how trustworthy a person you are, you don’t have the requisite training and subsequent rigorous certification to enable you to be trusted with this type of task. In fact, if I were to empower you to perform that surgery without having first verified that you were trained and certified, it would be both irresponsible and immoral of me to do so. I am going to find a cardiologist who has had extensive training and certification, who has earned the trust of other patients and professionals alike, and then I am going to trust and empower them to perform that critical task of open-heart surgery on my daughter. The same is true in our organization. While we can trust members of our team, we cannot and must not empower them and expect them to perform to the exacting standards we require unless we have first rigorously trained them to the tasks necessary, resourced a realistic certification to validate that training, and then subsequently entrusted and empowered them to accomplish the tasks we need.” That analogy has stuck with me for several years – it is simple, yet profound, as it speaks to more than just “trust” as the critical element in leader development. While many professions, researchers, and writers might argue that we have a “trust” problem in the workforce today, I think it is both more basic and more broad than that.
In a basic sense, we have a training and certification problem. We often fail to adequately invest time, resourcing, and energy in training and certifying members of our team. That investment should be at the organizational level, where we are planning, resourcing, and executing realistic, challenging, and scaffolded training iterations. It should also be at the personal level, where as leaders, you and I are taking the time to meet each individual where they are at, tailoring the developmental training and certification to their strengths and weaknesses and the needs of the team. In doing so, we not only create cohesive and effective teams, we also build individual buy-in and lay the foundation for increased task identity and autonomy within the team.
In a broad sense, the issue goes beyond trust – it is a leader development issue. We are failing to recognize that leader development begins with training and certification, and then leverages that established skill and demonstrated trustworthiness by empowering subordinate leaders to take ownership. When we fail to enable that level of ownership, responsibility, and autonomy, we stifle the enthusiasm, energy, and desire of subordinates to step up and lead. We are cutting our own organization off at the knees by tamping down the very talent that we should be fighting to cultivate within the team. As leaders, our challenge and our goal is to recognize that influence is exponentially grown when we can in good conscience empower others to go and do great things.
If we are struggling with enabling another leader to gain autonomy and influence, we should pause and ask ourselves four questions – is it because they are untrainable? Is it because I’ve never certified this individual? Is it because they are untrustworthy? Or is it because I am unwilling to empower someone?:
Is it because they are untrainable? Have I given the proper training/resourcing that is necessary to ensure they understand the process that we use, or what the desired outcome is? Have I taken the time to clearly communicate our organization’s mission, vision and values in a way that clearly sets expectations for WHAT we do and WHY we do it? Have I invested in a deliberate process oriented on equipping this teammate with both the tools and the knowledge necessary to do their job, and to accomplish the tasks that I might ask of them? If the answer to these questions isn’t a clear and resounding “YES”, then I have not trained the individual. On the other hand, if I have done all of these things and that individual still isn’t meeting the standard for a trained teammate, then I need to consider if this is a motivation problem, or a competence problem, and then determine the best way forward, for both the individual and the organization.
Is it because I’ve never certified this individual? In some professions there are objective certifications – have I afforded the opportunity for my team to attain those? If my profession doesn’t have an objective certification (for example, the Bar for Lawyers, an RN for nurses, CPA for accountants, Medical School & residency for Doctors, etc.) have I established a standard to which my team can aspire, and against which I can “certify” members of the team? Is that certification clearly defined, objectively attainable, and relevant to the role or team that I am leading? If the answer to any of these questions is “NO”, the onus of responsibility is on me to get these answers to yes. On the other hand, if the individual is struggling with the certification, I need to either re-validate that the certification standard is appropriate or recognize that I have a training issue and go back to training with the individual.
Is it because they are untrustworthy? If that is my perception, am I absolutely able to verify that I don’t have some implicit bias that is the barrier to my trust? If so, is there a character issue with the person on my team? Have I approached them about this before, seeking to understand and offering them actionable feedback? Is there an established pattern of behavior or actions that confirms or denies my perception of their trustworthiness? Have I avoided the hard work of a leader that requires me to speak the truth, in love, and ensure that the character of our collective team is unquestionable? If there is a character issue with that teammate that precludes me from trusting them, it is utterly unloving for me to ignore it. To gloss over or ignore it is the equivalent of me saying “I don’t care enough about you to provide feedback and speak truth into this area of weakness in your life.” Similarly, if their character is so out of alignment with my organizations values that they need to be removed from the organization, and yet I am unwilling to have that hard conversation, I am being unloving to the team and disloyal to the organization that I am entrusted to lead. Either way, it is squarely and solely your responsibility as a leader to address a perceived untrustworthiness with a teammate.
Is it because I am unwilling to empower someone? If so, what is hindering me from doing so? Odds are, if someone has been trained, certified, and is found trustworthy, my unwillingness to empower is either a result of my own pride (where the story I tell myself is I can just do it better myself, therefore there is no need to empower others to do this for the team), or my own insecurity (where the story I tell myself is if I empower them, will I lose my own power and influence). At this point, you as the leader must engage in introspection and honest self-assessment to identify which of these is holding you back from empowering others. The third option may be that you have an unsettled feeling about “giving the reins” to someone else – at which point, you must either truly believe that you have trained, certified, and trusted someone else, and therefore have no reason not to empower them to lead, or that you failed to objectively ensure the first three elements were satisfied. Either way, it is incumbent on you as a leader to take a developmental approach and engage with that individual in a way that will build them into a more capable leader.
Train, Certify, Trust and Empower. That’s the formula; to do anything other than that is short-sighted, unwise, unloving to those on the team, and in some instances, may be immoral. As you assess your current team, consider where you are now, and where you want to be in the next 6, 12, and 18 months. In order to achieve those goals, what will be the role of the members of your team? What are the actions and attributes that your subordinate leaders will need to display to achieve those goals? In 18 months, will the prevailing sentiment be “I wish I had been given some trust and autonomy to do my job, rather than being micromanaged throughout the entire process.”? On the other hand, if 18 months from now you want to find yourself and your team celebrating the achievements and milestones you have collectively accomplished, then consider carefully how you might deliberately invest your time, talent, and attention as a leader to building a clear path to train, certify, trust and empower your team. In doing so, not only will you set a strong foundation to achieve your goals, you will also embrace a developmental approach that manifests your intentionality and creates significant impacts.
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