Believe in your employees until they prove you wrong

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There is one behaviour I’ve seen many times in my professional career that I will never understand: leaders — or at least that’s what they call themselves — not trusting their employees. I’ve had managers with that mentality and I’ve seen managers from other teams thinking that way.

Their leading style dictates that you, as a leader, shouldn’t fully trust your employees until they prove you wrong. Sometimes, these managers will admit this is how they think, but in most of the cases, their actions will speak louder than their words.

Not trusting your employees is a terrible way of leadership. In fact, it can’t be called ‘leadership’. I can’t think of a scenario in which not supporting your employees makes sense, unless they’ve given you a very good reason not to do so, of course. If you just hired a person, then wouldn’t you trust him/her? Why hire this individual if they won’t be fully supported? Or, if you were hired to lead an existing team, why wouldn’t you trust your new team? Does it mean you don’t trust the company who hired you? Does it mean you don’t trust the previous people who built your team?

Using quite an extreme analogy, in criminal trials, the principle of presumption of innocence — a human right in many parts of the world — indicates you are innocent until proven guilty. Not trusting your employees doesn’t mean you are in breach of a human right, but it does mean, in my opinion, that you are being unfair and you are not getting the most out of your team members.

An uncomfortable position to be in

Fear as a motivator

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Mr Burns, a classic example of someone using fear to ‘motivate’ his employees

As I mentioned before, I strongly believe that lack of support and confidence leads to worse performance and unhappiness at work.

Support making mistakes

I remember working for a company in which mistakes or ‘fails’ were not particularly supported. When the new Director of Software Engineering joined, he introduced to the department a so-called ‘Temple of Fail’. This was an event that took place fortnightly and lasted for a few minutes, in which all the software development teams would get together so people could share a screw-up — either an individual or team mistake — with everyone else. What was the only condition? You had to share the fail, but you had to explain what you’d learned from it. If there weren’t any lessons learned, then there was a problem, because it meant that the failure could happen again.

After the ‘Temple of Fail’ was introduced, I personally felt better about making mistakes. We are humans, and we are not perfect. Mistakes will happen. There are a lot more opportunities to build something amazing and to learn valuable lessons when you are not constantly thinking about not making mistakes.

One more example of support to motivate

Sacha, I’m fully aware you are the least experienced guy in the team. I didn’t hire you to contribute like a senior developer would. I hired you because I think you are a smart guy and you can come up with fresh ideas and learn a lot from the rest of the team. If you suggest an idea or make a comment and a senior member thinks there’s a better approach, he or she will respectfully explain why, and you’ll have learned something new. So, please, don’t ever keep quiet if you have something to say, because the team and I fully support you.

My approach changed completely. Not because I was smarter or because I suddenly knew more things, but because I felt fully supported by my manager and the rest of the team, giving me a lot of confidence. My ‘fails’ or ‘mistakes’ were addressed with clear explanations so I could learn from them, and my successes were celebrated.

Conclusion

Leadership is about empathy. Remember how you performed and how you felt when you were not fully supported. If you want to have a better chance of getting the most of your team, support them, no matter if you just met them or if you’ve been working together for years.

Software engineering during the day. Sports, music, travelling, books and arts during the night.

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