Imagine this (it shouldn’t be all that hard): You are a widget manufacturer. You’ve been tasked to figure out how to make 1000 widgets. You’ve been planning for weeks. You’ve gathered data, run the numbers, made estimates, and come up with a plan you believe in. You’ve left a little wiggle room for inevitable unknown obstacles. You’ve put it all into MS Project and up on the screen in Powerpoint slides. You are an experienced team – you’ve done this all before many times -- and the guys doing the work are battle-hardened veterans who know their business. Everything looks good.
Now it’s time to present your plan to the executive team. You lay everything out in a Powerpoint presentation that you’ve reviewed seventeen times. But when they hear the plan, they say: “Sorry, but that’s all wrong. You say you can make 1000 widgets in fourteen months. We say it only takes eight months to make that many widgets. Get to work”.
Now you and your team know how long it will take to make 1000 widgets – 14 months. But somehow your “leadership” has decided that it only takes much less time than that. Never mind that these guys have only been with the company for a year or so, and have no real experience with the difficulties and the process of building 1000 widgets. They are the bosses and their style of “leadership” seems to be to assert their all-knowing authority over the guys who actually know what is going on. It seems to them that “leadership” means being a hard-ass and “pushing” the team to get more out of them than is possible. Bottom line: They didn’t listen and they didn’t trust you. Why did they ask you to do all that planning when they were just going to tell you the schedule anyway?
We all know what happens next: after about seven months, it becomes hopelessly, overwhelmingly, manifestly clear that there is not going be 1000 widgets on the loading dock in a month. Now everyone is scrambling to adjust course. This, naturally, is a vastly worse situation than if they had merely planned on the 1000 widgets being available in 14 months from the start. Or agreed to make the number 500 in seven months instead.
True leaders listen to their people and believe them. Good people tell you the truth they know they will be trusted. The last thing you want to do is create a situation where your folks start “gaming” you and telling you what they think you want to hear. This is a direct result of not trusting them.
If you are a leader and you don’t believe what you are being told, then it is overwhelmingly likely that you are the one with the problem. You either need to radically change what you are doing or get new people – and again, it is very, very likely that you are the one that needs to change, not your people. And if you have the wrong people, that is probably your fault, too.
The people in the trenches are the ones closest to the issue, and they know best what is happening “on the ground”. Believe them, and you can adjust your plans and needs accordingly from the start. Don’t believe them, and your plans will get adjusted anyway. You can’t make a baby with three women in three months, and if your plan requires that you do that, your plan is in trouble no matter how much of a hard-ass you are. And the team knows that you can’t get a baby in three months, and they will be the ones who suffer for a bad plan. They learn not to trust you and their morale goes into the tank.
Building and maintaining trust in both directions is a critical requirement for a good leader. Trusting your people will engender their trust in you. It’s a virtuous circle. Sometimes you even need to trust them even when they are wrong to help build future trust and to show that you believe in them. If they trust you, they’ll follow you. Their morale will be up. They’ll do the extra work and they’ll put in the effort because they want to. People who are trusted and believed do that as a matter of course.
And isn’t that what we want our folks to do?