The cycle of trust and micromanagement
There are actually two cycles: trust and autonomy, distrust and micromanagement. You can’t force a leader to give an employee autonomy (and to be clear, the autonomy is not to decide which task to perform but rather to decide how to perform it). The leader must first trust the employee enough to give them that autonomy and only then feel safe enough to give it. And when the employee gets autonomy, they feel more comfortable trying things, and delivering bad news when they fail, because they trust their leader to accept it and not react in a way that would force them to think twice the next time they want to try something.
When leaders distrust employees, they micromanage them. You know, just to make sure they do their job. When employees are micromanaged, they will refrain from trying things because they don’t trust their leader’s reaction to failure. They will do exactly what their boss told them, even when they know it’s not the right thing to do because they would rather fail than disobey their boss. This way, they don’t have to be accountable for their actions.
Research shows that the autonomy to decide how to perform a task has a 47% positive impact on creativity and productivity. Feeling your leader's trust in you has additional positive consequences in reducing stress, increasing engagement, reducing absenteeism, increasing the probability of staying in the company longer, and much more.
Why do leaders micromanage?
In a 2018 survey of “what is the most important quality for you in other people?” in 5 of 6 relationships, the answer was trustworthiness (with an average of 65.6%). But when leaders were asked about their employees’ most important quality, the top quality was the willingness to work hard (47.5%), and trustworthiness only came second (39.3%). There is no doubt why leaders fail to give employees autonomy: they don’t trust them, nor do they want to trust them (since they don’t believe that their employees’ trustworthiness is their most important quality, anyway).
Why doesn’t leader trust their employees? The 8th law of trust tells us that the leader's trust in the employee is the product of the leader’s trustability (their overall willingness to trust people in general, or employees in particular) and a specific employee’s trustworthiness. Therefore, there could be two reasons why a leader will not trust their employee: the employee is untrustworthy, or the leader has low trustability.
Why do leaders distrust employees?
There could be several reasons why the leader considers the employee to be untrustworthy, and there are things the leader can do about them:
If the leader considers the employee incompetent, there could be training, mentoring, and experience that the leader can help the employee gain to increase their competence.
This could be a matter of time. The leader doesn’t trust the employee yet. In this case, the leader should increase the amount of time and intimacy (face-to-face) interactions with the employee to accelerate building that trust.
The symmetry of the manager-employee relationship is skewed. Still, some things could be done to feel that the leader and the employee are on the same side, such as emphasizing the common vision and mission and sometimes the existence of a common enemy (such as a competitor, market conditions, tight budget, and aggressive schedule).
Personality incompatibility could be a harder issue to resolve. Different personalities can sometimes be complementary (and thus compatible). But in other cases, personalities can clash. The best to do in this situation is to address the incompatibility and see if it can be relatively easily resolved by some effort by one or both sides.
If any of those issues cannot be resolved, the leader must understand that the resulting distrust comes with lower performance and all the negative consequences, such as underperforming projects, low job satisfaction, disengagement, and more. The leader must make a conscious decision in balancing the low performance resulting from low trust against removing that employee from the team. It’s that simple (albeit a hard decision to make).
The second reason the leader might not trust the employee is a low level of trustability (by the leader). We are the sum of our experiences, and if our experiences cause us not to trust employees, that’s what we’ll do, even when specific employees are highly trustworthy. What can you do about that? Low-trustability leaders tend not to trust their employees until they earn their trust. However, distrusting a trustworthy employee will kill that employee’s trustworthiness. After all, why bother behaving in a trustworthy way if your boss doesn’t trust you? On the other side, you should not blindly trust employees at a much higher level of their demonstrated trustworthiness. The best approach is to start with trusting the employee slightly more than the level of trustworthiness already demonstrated by them. As they see that you trust them more than what they believe they earned, their trustworthiness will continue to increase.
The Peter Principle
But some people will never feel comfortable trusting their employees beyond the demonstrated level of trustworthiness. Some people are simply best as individual contributors. We live in a society that worships leadership and doesn’t appreciate individual contributors much. You may be familiar with The Peter Principle as “people will always get promoted to their level of incompetence.” We take a great individual contributor and force them to lead others, even if their trustability level is low, which means they will not trust their employees, which means they will micromanage their employees, which means that performance will be low. We will consider someone who was a great individual contributor an incompetent leader. You must make that tough decision and ignore our obsession with leadership. If you have low trustability, you shouldn’t be a leader, and that’s OK!
To learn more, listen to Season 6, Episode 12 of The TRUST Show Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s6e12-trust-micromanagement-and-trust-again/id1569249060?i=1000579845091
Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps build trust in organizations.