Dear Leader: Please Explore If You Have a Trust Issue

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

group of businesspeople brainstorming

In my article last week, I discussed how most executives and leaders:

  • Follow the traditional notions of leadership and LEAD WITH CONTROL

But, that this notion of leadership is losing its relevance. And instead, executives and leaders need to:

  • Follow the modern notion of leadership and LEAD WITH CONTEXT

When I present these ideas to executive teams, they are really quick to say two things:

  1. “Yes, leading with context is what we need to do,” and
  2. “We don’t do this very well.”

After they sit on this information a little bit, they then say a third thing:

  1. “But, we can’t lead with context because our people aren’t capable of operating effectively without the control we have to provide.”

It is at this point that I first clarify something. I ask, “So, what you are telling me is that you do not trust your people enough to lead with context, so you feel like you have to lead with control. Is that correct?”

They are left to agree with this question.

Here Comes the Discomfort…

I then try my best to get them to sit in some discomfort.

I first show them this video clip: Simon Sinek – Noah (quickly watch this clip, it is only 2:20).

Then, I ask them two uncomfortable questions:

  • How can you be sure that you aren’t dealing with Noah at Caesar’s Palace?
  • What is the actual problem? Is it that your people don’t have the necessary ability and cannot be trusted? Or, is it that you struggle to trust the people that you lead?

At this point, there is a lot of squirming in the room, which I think is a good thing.

Leaders are Prone to Misdiagnose the Root Issue

There is an equation that I find helpful to use when there is a performance issue:

Performance = f(ability x motivation x opportunity)

This equation suggests that if there is a performance issue, it is because of at least one of the three factors: ability, motivation, and opportunity.

When a performance issue is going on and I ask the leaders what is the primary reason for the performance issue, they will almost always say, “ability.”

But, when I ask the employees what the primary reason for the performance issue is, they will almost always say either “motivation” or “opportunity.” This often looks like: “My manager micromanages me and therefore I am not very motivated,” or “My manager doesn’t give me the opportunity step outside of the box he has painted me in.”

In my experience, the performance issue is most commonly a motivation or opportunity issue, but leaders are prone to misdiagnose it as an ability issue.

Why is that?

If the leader sees the issue as an ability issue, it puts the issue on the shoulders of the employee. And, the fix is relatively simple: get rid of or develop the employee.

But, if the leader saw the issue as a motivation or opportunity issue, it would put the issue on the shoulders of the leader. And, I don’t know many leaders who are willing to admit that they haven’t been doing a very good job as a leader.

Leader, do you have a trust issue?

It is this same logic that causes leaders to continue leading with control, even if they know it is better to lead with context.

Leaders have a difficult time recognizing that the reason why their employees have low ability (and need control) is because they previously haven’t been leading with context, stifling their motivation and opportunity.

So, the very reason why leaders don’t feel like they can lead with context is because they have been holding their employees back by leading with control.

This creates a nasty cycle that will only change if leaders can:

  • Recognize the role they have played in stifling their employees
  • Recognize that they have a trust problem more than their employees have an ability problem
  • Become willing to reinvent themselves and take the first step of vulnerably leading with context

The Reality

The reality is that leaders who have historically led with control are never going to feel safe when they start leading with context. It is going to feel incredibly scary. Problems, mistakes, and failures will occur. And, the leaders have got to create space for those things and be ok with those things happening. It will be a part of the process. And, it is a necessary step in the process of reinventing the leadership and culture of the organization.

If you would like to improve the ability of your leaders to lead with context and not control, I would love to help you.

You can connect with me here: Connect with Ryan.

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