Believe in your employees until they prove you wrong

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

One of the most uncomfortable positions to be in at work is when you don’t feel supported by your peers and your manager. Especially when you just joined a new company. Your confidence decreases, in some cases to the point at which you feel stupid, and your performance suffers. You sometimes make more mistakes because of feeling nervous, or, in some cases, you end up doing your tasks with an over-conservative approach to avoid ‘looking foolish’, which is not productive. Some may say that there are people who work better under pressure, and it might be true. However, I don’t think this is working under pressure. This is working under fear.

Fear as a motivator

Fear has been used throughout the years as one of the main ways of ‘motivating people’. Not just at work. These motivators usually take the form of ‘do this or…’ or ‘don’t do that, otherwise…’. To me, they sound more like threats than motivators, and the problem I see with using these type of extrinsic motivators at work is the negative connotation they usually carry. Positive extrinsic motivators are sometimes incredibly useful, but negative ones should be avoided. For example, it’s not the same if you promise a team a bonus or an extra couple of days off if they successfully deliver a key project milestone in time, to tell them — as it happened to me once — that you might pull the plug on the project and the team if they don’t deliver the milestone in time. This may be an extreme example, but hopefully, you’ll get the point and see how one is a positive motivator, while the other one is a negative one.

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

Nobody likes making mistakes. But in some situations, mistakes are good. Not because of the action of making a mistake, but what you can learn from it. Making a mistake once shouldn’t be a problem. Making the same mistake repeatedly, on the other hand, should.

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

I will never forget about one conversation I had with one of my managers many years ago. I had recently joined a big company from the US with offices in Argentina after spending almost three years working for my first employer, a small software development agency. I was hired as a software developer to be a part of a team with very talented people. All the team members were much more experienced and older than I was, and it was my first time working for a company that held meetings in English, instead of Spanish, my mother tongue. Naturally, in the beginning, I was rather shy when suggesting ideas or having technical conversations with the rest of the team. I was scared of saying something stupid.
One day, my manager visited us from the US and had a one-to-one with me. He told me he’d like me to be more vocal and share my ideas with the team during the meetings. I replied that I felt I didn’t know as much as the other people and that my ideas were probably not as good as those who were experts compared to me. Then he said the following:

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

I’d recommend trying to remember about the times — at work or not — that you were performing great and the times you felt you were underperforming and think about how supported and trusted you felt back then by the people surrounding you, such as friends, family, teammates, colleagues, managers, teachers, and more.

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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