Leadership, trust and how not to ruin it
Featured image courtesy https://www.pexels.com/photo/ground-group-growth-hands-461049/
Are you a people leader in a company?
What do I mean by a people leader?
It is someone who is in charge of managing people and their development, ensuring those people in your care have the room to grow and get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. This is a very difficult role as it is not meant for the selfish.
To lead is a unique responsibility where you take ownership of your team's mistakes while giving credit and celebrating their wins. To lead in a way, is to serve.
Quite often, as a new people leader, this makes it hard to measure your success and leave you feeling unaccomplished a lot, especially because your impact isn't as visible in the short term. I have spoken to many engineers who turned into people management and then switched back because they didn't realise or recognise their contributions to the success of their team. This is a very common theme and it is no surprise that people end up switching back and forth.
But this post is about leadership and trust.
How do you earn the trust of your people?
This is one of the biggest challenges any people leader faces when they start managing people.
It is a lot easier to lose trust than to gain trust.
I have in the past lost trust in the leadership at the firm I worked for, due to things the leaders said or did. So it is not shocking if someone feels that they don't trust their leadership.
As a new people leader, it is challenging to gain and build that trust but without taking the time to do that, you will struggle to make your team successful.
It is quite common in the industry for people to claim that managers have to make tough decisions. The decisions are tough only because you made it tough. A lot of difficult conversations would not have been difficult, if the people involved had open minds and empathised with each other and were transparent about issues in the first place. But as human beings, we tend to complicate things.
This post is no claim to fame or making a statement about me being a great people leader.
I am not a perfect leader at all. Far from it.
I might have lost the trust of those who report to me through things I have said or done too.
I try to build a relationship with my direct reports in which they can just tell me what I could have done differently or better or continue doing. As a fan of Radical Candor, I value feedback from everyone.
Looking back at my career so far, I realise that if I have improved anything, it was only because I had timely feedback from those that cared. Thus I sincerely appreciate feedback on my blind-spots and have and will always make an attempt to improve.
In my first management role, I made decisions with a lot less empathy than I have today. I have learned that sometimes leading is not all about just listening to senior management or following orders. It is also about ensuring that the senior management understands the problems of the people they are responsible for and make an effort to improve it.
A lot of the anecdotes in this post are based on things I observed while reporting to a people leader who didn't really want to be one. After a couple of years reporting to this person, I did a self retrospection as to why I never trusted that person. This helped me a lot and led to me getting to the root of the problem, how my trust eroded over time. And that's how it always happens, several small things contribute to a losing trust over time. It is rarely in one go.
I am a firm believer in the saying "give respect, and take respect". When it comes to trust and respect, you always hand these out first. Let the person you are managing know that you trust them to get the things they are to do, completed successfully. Respect them and give them the room to voice concerns and raise ideas and most importantly let them make mistakes on their own.
If despite trusting someone to get something done, they failed, then take the time to find out what contributed to that outcome. It is highly unlikely that someone intentionally decided to sabotage a request. Have a conversation with them that will help them reflect on what they could have done better next time. Coach them to do better. Probe them to find answers themselves.
If instead you make a fuss about them not doing what was agreed upon earlier then, you have lost their trust in you as a leader who would support them. You have created a scenario where they start thinking that the deal is them versus you.
Fixing this is extremely difficult as trust is crucial to build a thriving team. The lack of it in a leader or among peers creates a rather unpleasant or toxic environment where stress levels would be unusually high.
Choosing friends over those capable
There was a firm that I worked at where a new CTO decided to bring his trusted friend(s) without due process or opening the role for internal applications as a software development manager. The process he followed was a chat over the phone or drinks at a pub - I am not clear which one specifically. This was a clear lack of trust the new CTO showed to the people already working there. He was building a team directly reporting to him that he trusted from previous experience ignoring the expertise of everyone working at the company at the time. Gradually he brought in a couple of people like this - no interviews, just hand picking.
The culture prior to the said CTO joining the company was one of trust and care. Everyone had everyone's back. People invested their time in others, developed them, saw them grow and wanted to see them do more. The only problem was a lack of order - a lack of discipline in how change requests came to the small IT department that served the rest of the business. This was not the fault of the engineers or the IT Department, this was just a result of the fact that the company's demands on the IT department grew rapidly in less than a year. Work was constantly dumped on the software department and there was no authority to question if it was urgent or could be done later. It was almost as if the IT department was a dumping ground of changes.
I don't know if the CTO realised or maybe he didn't care or didn't know. But people who had been there already and had helped build things up till then were feeling a bit odd, a bit like being invaded. But some of them realised that it was important to gain this new person's trust and it was important to do anything for this new CTO and his trusted mates. They did just that. Toiled, worked extra hard, over time, raising their heads above the invisible but ever rising parapet simply to get approval and be part of the CTO's inner circle.
From a culture of helping each other the culture slowly transformed into help yourselves first, others can wait. It was a gradual but steady erosion of culture. There were still some of the people who seemed to have carried all the elements of the old culture. But they were a few.
See how the lack of trust transformed the work environment.
Narcissism is not a leadership trait
Have you worked with leaders who love the sound of their own voice? The leaders who hog the microphone or the meeting to keep expressing their views, barely giving any one else a chance to speak. Listening is out of question.
There was this software development manager, who was originally a software enterprise architect, who was also the aforementioned CTO's favourite from a previous job. The man knew his English and was well read and loved to show off his advanced vocabulary in writing and speaking.
Not all of us in the department had his enthusiasm for mastering fancy words. Thus most often, I felt this person used the words he used, simply to satisfy his own ego often creating confusion or ambiguity. There were many times, I would have to follow up with, what does that even mean?. I am not ashamed to ask what I don't know, especially when it comes to languages, which I love learning, but if you can say something in simple words, please use them, instead of being poetic in front of engineers for whom English is not even their native language.
Do not be disrespectful to coworkers
Have you had your manager make disrespectful comments about your peers to you during your 1-1, even calling them names as if they were like in primary school?
This one was a bit of shock for me. I was not sure if this was a cultural thing. But this made me really uncomfortable about the aforementioned Software Development Manager hire.
Some of those whom he mocked were my peers. Sometimes he mocked his boss and I was like, okay! There is an element of truth but you don't have to speak disrespectfully about a coworker to get that point across. If the person does that to you about your peers, you can be certain they do this about you to your peers.
It was like the person was trying to play divide and conquer, seeking my feedback on my peers but in a very biased way.
Please do not do this to your direct reports. Building a culture of respect is extremely important and joking behind one's back is not professional in any way. There is a fine line between saying "X said that blah" vs "X is a keyboard warrior losing control of x's team".
Respect personal life
When a person signs up for a job, they do sign up because they are willing to do the job. But at the same time, they deserve the right to tend to their personal life. They could be going through a divorce, or they might be a single parent looking after a child. What if they are single and have a puppy or a young pet in need. These are essentials and sometimes when things go wrong at home, they are the only ones that can tend to it, thus as a manager you must respect one's decision to quickly attend to an emergency at home. Unless, there is a very good reason not to. Like if the person leaving would essentially cause the company to be unable to proceed with a launch or something phenomenal!
I had an emergency at home, when my puppy started chewing violently and my dog monitor notified me, I was scared if he would choke on the wool that he chewed out of his bed. I send an instant message to my team and peers and headed off home to tend to my dog thinking I could sign back in from home after I dealt with the situation. While in the train back home, my boss at the time, the aforementioned software development manager made a fuss about how this wasn't a good reason to head home. I really lost it and told him that if a company thinks that my personal emergency was not something I could deal with, then I was happy to leave the job.
Family comes first, anytime. Nobody can fill my role at home, whereas at work, there are many who can step-in temporarily. Respect that.
Practice what you preach
We have all, as software engineers, had that moment when we look at a codebase and go "OMG! This is so bad! Couldn't they have done it this other way instead?".
This software development manager was no different. Personally taking a look at the code base and then going mad about all things terrible about it.
The team I took care of at the time was responsible for supporting the front line application support team. Thus any bugs or instability in any of the distinct applications, that would come down to my team. There would not have been a need for a team like this if we had excellent quality practices. The more time my team spent debugging issues, the less time they have to work on features. A lot of times, some of the hardest to debug issues are the ones that could have been easily fixed by those who had the context.
One day, my team spent hours looking at an issue on the user acceptance testing environment that just didn't make sense. They spent hours on it because, sometimes it worked, and suddenly it would stop. We then found out the cause. It was an object relationship mapper caching change that the Software Development Manager pushed out without testing! This was shocking for the entire team! They all asked the same question, "Why is the SDM writing code?", "He does not have an environment. Environments are owned by teams. He is not in a development team. Why did he make such a fundamental change?".
As the manager of my team, I empathized with them and posted an announcement on Microsoft Teams, our official instant messaging platform, asking everyone to be mindful when pushing changes fundamental to database interactions like at the ORM behaviour and stressed the need to test it properly in an environment before letting it go to production. The SDM having read my message, messaged me angrily calling me a keyboard warrior and questioning why I had done what I had done. As if ensuring that my team didn't have to waste time debugging untested code was a bad thing.
The person made me question my sanity and failed to own his mistake and decided my team had to roll the change back while he pushed the change originally.
I was impressed how successful he was in making me think that I had communicated something wrong. I kept reading and rereading my message which didn't blame anyone or any team but only pointed how much time was wasted. In a company where we all believed in "you break it, you fix it", this person had broken that rule and gone around name-calling anyone who challenged what he did.
The saga continues.
After several months I spoke to this SDM about wanting to make a bigger impact and we needed more opportunities and a career framework was needed and I was happy to build one. During this conversation this person agreed it was welcome. While I discussed about how we aren't getting enough opportunities to architect or design solutions because he had created a role specifically for this and this prevented teams from owning their designs taking away their opportunity to learn, make mistakes and iterate. Designs were being bottle-necked by one individual whom he believed was solely capable of doing system design. He said that he didn't believe others could do it!
I was shocked at this ignorance but that was it. The SDM had crossed a line there questioning my knowledge and expertise by making that statement. Having worked in systems where performance, resilience and scalability mattered in the past I was dumbfounded that he was arrogant enough to decide that no one was up to the job without even giving them the opportunity.
Empowering someone requires trust. Trusting someone to get it the job done, giving them the space to do it. In an environment where micromanagement is the norm, trust is a rare commodity. In a micro-managed environment, leaders decide whom to trust and tell them what to do. Whereas in an empowered environment, leaders hire people and trust them to solve the problems that they are given.
There's a big difference in the two approaches. The former, the micro-management approach takes away ownership from the people doing the job. The latter creates a sense of ownership, gives those doing the job, a seat at the table. It is hard for new leaders, but once you learn the advantages, it isn't hard to see why empowering is important - it enables you to scale your organisation easily.
Listen and create opportunities to grow
Based on the earlier conversation on career frameworks, I did my homework, gathered information on career progression frameworks and even came up with roles that Technology companies used in the industry, as I strongly believed that the company would benefit from being a more technology focused organisation than an insurance company.
What surprised me was that the SDM had chosen a career ladder that was copied from another insurance company which was not known for its tech but more for its bureaucracy. But having heard his response to my feedback from earlier, I did not want to tell him how it was a bad choice. I listened and suggested the gaps in the levels and proposed expertise levels to have better career progression conversations between managers and direct reports. I later learned from a peer that apparently he brushed my career progression plan suggestions as "we would never grow that big".
The saddest part was I had prepared presentations and proposals for this but didn't even get to share it with the rest of the management because this guy shut me down.
I caught up with my peers after months and I learned from them that the department still does not have a career progression framework. Promotions and performance discussions are just for fluff based on how much managers liked their reports.
Continuous feedback and nurturing others
After years of managing but not seeing any opportunities for growth or career progression, I switched to being an individual contributor. I had literally lost all hope of any change in the organisation by then.
So I tried out development again but I was in one dev team. My impact was limited to that one team's design, code, pipelines etc. So after nearly a year as a developer, I had a discussion regarding how I wanted to manage teams and wasn't satisfied with how limited my impact was. To which the man responded "you are not ready for management. We need to set you up for success". This was shocking news to me! I had managed people for about 4 years by then. I asked for why he said that and what he meant by it. He laughed it off, instead of giving me feedback. He never mentioned feedback like that or close to that when I was managing a team, while reporting to him. So this caught me off guard. Every performance review I got feedback on things which I worked on improving but this was news.
Keeping up the good mood
I was joking about something unrelated in a group conversation over lunch. Everyone had a laugh and suddenly this SDM made a comment about "how I never asked yes or no questions" out of the blue. Some of my mates were a bit confused as in "where did that come from?", "What was that for?".
As a leader one of the things you must strive to do is to ensure you are always in a good mood while talking to your reports or teams. You are the face of the organisation for many who work with you. Thus it is important to show your best side to get the best out of the people around you. Don't ruin your relationship with your team, because you had a bad day. Take some time away from work if you indeed had a bad day. Get your head in a good state and then get back to work. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
So what did I do to improve my situation?
After switching to a development role for nearly 10 months, I focussed on working on my mental health and getting better. I then started looking for roles I wanted to do rather than take up a job just to escape the hell I was in. I got one that aligned with my personal values and resigned from my job at the organisation that I loved but had grown unfit for work.
However, as a fan of Radical Candor, I did have a session to seek feedback on why he behaved the way he did. The man did his old trick, apologising but talking as if he was unsure what made me feel the way I did, making me question if that really happened at all.
Gaslighting is a popular technique used by con artists, psychos or people with malevolent intentions. The last thing you want in life is to be working with someone who is good at that.
Prior to me leaving the firm, he asked me to have a chat with him as if I was going to forgive all that he had done. Even tried to buy my trust by saying I should speak and be open with him and saying he knows because he didn't speak and it resulted in his divorce from his first wife. I don't know where that came from and I was not at all interested in his personal life or divorce or whatever. But the man wanted to now play a victim to see if I would trust him. And I said "I have never trusted you and nor will I ever. I have been closed that way for my own good.". He spoke some pleasantries, shook my hand and we parted.
It was too late to build trust. Don't let this happen to you as a people leader.
What did I learn?
Leadership is not just a position of authority. It is a position of responsibility and extreme ownership. The way you behave with and around your team will affect how your team views you.
Building trust gets even harder when you manage a team where people come from different cultural backgrounds. Understanding what is appropriate or not in a different culture is tricky.
Listen. This is the least you can do as a leader.
Support. This is the one thing you must do as a leader.
And lastly Empower.
I hope you found this helpful.