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  • Writer's pictureAnton Zemlyanoy

"Trust us. And when we're behind, trust us even more."

A counterintuitive approach to managing expectations, delivering quality work and building trust


 


Can you imagine asking the above of your team? Or your boss? Or your client? Well, this was a real request made by Valérie*, one of the team leaders I was working with on a group project. It was during a preparatory call and we were discussing how we should work together. A request for the rest of the team not to stress if the co-leaders are behind the official schedule.


I remember to this day how surprised I was to hear it. And even more, how it felt to act upon it, to exercise it, to feel the tension build in me as we were indeed behind at certain points of the project. And how remembering that I agreed to honour this request was helping me relax and to watch what happens.


As I reflected on this request when the project finished, I remembered that I made very similar asks throughout my career of my teams and clients whenever we were behind. Especially when the clients would start to get anxious and ask us to hurry up. When a well-intended, but anxious thought, hindered their ability to remember that if we take more time now to find the right combination of elements, we can apply it to the rest of the project at faster speeds later. I'd request them to trust us because I knew that my team got paid to deliver quality work, not just to deliver work. However, I always asked to trust us when we were already behind and requesting this trust in advance was an upgrade for me.



Abstract man team leader asking to be trusted by stakeholders



An upgrade because it does a couple of things right at the start of an engagement:


First, it normalizes that progress can be outside a pre-set schedule and removes the element of unpleasant surprise for the other party. It is often when we are unpleasantly surprised, that we are most likely to react rather than respond. It sends a message that we are aware of the delay, that we are consciously choosing to spend more time at this point on a project and that we already planning how to pick up the speed at a different stage. It reminds stakeholders that time variability is a natural part of a process where humans are involved. But we often forget this, especially when we let the pressure get to us.


It's like a film director creating an agreement with a studio that at some stages of filming it will feel like they are behind schedule, and particularly in those moments to trust that the film will still be completed on time or that any delays will be worth it. Of course, once this trust is advanced, it is up to the director to deliver on the promise.


Second, it requests to trust even more when a first reaction of a stakeholder could be to step in and take control. Or a lighter version of an attempt of control - to advise.


This helps the other party running late to not feel overly pressured, which in turn helps them avoid going into the non-productive stress zones, thus supporting their ability to deliver quality products. One of the most frequent challenges I've seen new managers and executives face is that they collapse into taking over and completing tasks themselves, or closely monitoring the project, which leads to working extra long hours at the cost of sleep, exercise, time with friends and family, which in turn risks building resentment towards both themselves and their teams.


Trusting even more is scary because we all have promises to keep, but when our "stepping in" is fueled by worry, rather than seeing the bigger picture, it comes at high costs: the cost of autonomy and self-esteem to others. The cost of reduced morale and reduced engagement. In addition, and somewhat ironically, it robs team members of being able to recover themselves, hence hindering their growth and leaving the "designated project saviours" stuck in a habit of "trusting less -> controlling more -> feeling more stressed -> feeling like they can't trust others".


Trusting to see what happens and what we can learn from this for better collaboration can also lead to a lot of freed-up time. This is called developing a team in contrast to building a reputation of being a controlling team leader. This is how we let our children develop rather than be an over-protective (and over-controlling) parent.


Just keep in mind, that for people for whom not stepping in is new, it will take practice. Practising feeling uncomfortable and not acting upon that discomfort right away. Practising trusting others when parts of you are ringing the alarm bells inside your head imagining worst-case scenarios. Practising paying attention to those imagined scenarios and asking yourself "What if they aren't true?". And with enough practice, it will get easier.


Of course, the project we were working on did get completed on time, which makes writing about extending this trust without sacrificing the end results easier. And of course, keeping the promises we make is important to being trusted. It is how we journey towards that project completion and at what cost that I offer you to explore.



So, here is my invitation:


Find where you can practice trusting people more when they are behind or not doing things the way you think they should.


It could be your partner setting the dinner table, it could be your newly promoted team member, or it could be your kid working on something. It could be you not getting it right and starting the loop of negative self-talk. Practice the art of trusting and observing the impact. And as usual: adjust as needed, just maybe not right away.



Note: this piece was originally written for my friends and colleagues at Bold Move International and their pool of leadership graduates. I updated and re-wrote some of it for this blog.


 

Footnotes:

  1. The co-leader to make this request was Valérie Overmeer while working along with Alex Velrek.

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