Project Managers: The Trust Metric

Conventional “management” wisdom states that having trust among team members and between the team and management is critical to project success.  I just finished a project to implement a new tool suite for an organization and the need for trust was very apparent.  Trust however is neither simple to define or achieve. Trust is subjective. It involves a few key elements:

  • Predictability – a project manager expects a team member / employee to do what they agree to do in the way their manager expects them to do it. Likewise, employees trust managers who do what they say and what is expected of them.
  • Value Exchange – this element of trust means that you (and the organization) treat employees and staff fairly in exchange for satisfactorily completing the work they agree to do. This element has a touch of accountability in it.
  • Delayed Reciprocity – this element of trust is about giving payment or services with the expectation that sometime in the future your contribution will be recognized through receipt of goods or services of equal value. Kind of the “if I do good work it will be recognized/rewarded in the future” thought.
  • Honesty – this is a key element in trust.  It is very hard to measure, but easy to see when it does not exist. This element has the foundation of truth as its core.

Trust in the Real World of Management
If you only trust managers who place your interests ahead of their own, who always provide you with interesting assignments and give proper rewards and attention to your career, you will likely be disappointed. The Work Place Therapist offers these observations  about how managers make decisions:

  • They think of themselves and the impact a decision or assignment has on their lives and career (People will always look out for themselves, if possible).
  • They consider their reputation and want to be seen as go-to people who can get the job done.
  • In order of importance, they try to please their boss, the client and then you.

Understanding the priorities of senior executives and project managers helps you understand and predict how they will behave in a given situation. That being said, building trust on a team actually furthers the career goals of managers. Teams with high trust levels are more productive, more creative and enjoy the work and tasks more than teams where everyone feels they have to go it alone and watch their backs at all times. Teams without trust are dysfunctional and likely to fail.

How to Build Trust
Trust is built on a foundation of honesty. Project managers need to share information about project goals, resources and status and provide background or elaborate on the reasons for decisions. PMs need to show the team that they are professionals and value respect, honesty and accountability. The team may not like your answers; however, they will trust you as a conveyor of information.

If you make a promise to the team or individuals, you must follow through. If you fail to accomplish something you promised to do, you need to accept the responsibility, explain the failure – without pointing fingers up the management chain – and move on.

As a project manager, you build trust and the respect from your team through efforts to develop their skills and facilitating, to the extent possible, opportunities for them to display their accomplishments and be rewarded for their efforts. Taking credit for the work of others or denying them opportunities for advancement creates mistrust (vague doubts) and distrust (suspicion and complete lack of trust.) Working to ensure that team members are appropriately compensated, both monetarily and with perquisite considerations (Giving special perks), shows respect and helps develop the part of trust that relies on value exchange. Trust me when I say that the other team members will watch who you praise and reward to see if you are true to your words.

Delayed reciprocity may be the most challenging element of trust to build because it involves the most risk. From the perspective of a project manager, delayed reciprocity means you show trust in your team before you have evidence of their trustworthiness. You listen and accept their explanations of a task’s status. You expect them to solve problems and share accurate information with you and the team, without checking up on them. If an employee or staff member asks for exceptional consideration, such as time off or temporary changes in work hours because of a family problem, you trust them to be truthful and you make efforts to accommodate their situation.

Building team trust pays off in performance, creativity and employee retention. This is also how a culture of trust is built. Building trust is a key part of improving organizational and project culture. For those of you wanting to move beyond just building trust, Edgar Schein has many excellent articles and books about leadership and culture.

Have you been challenged to give or receive trust? What methods have you found successful? In your experience, what manager behaviors kill trust?

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