Two ways to build trust in a new manager relationship

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Like many things in life, these options could be summarized as: the easy way, or the hard way. And I am not going to post the link to the Boondocks clip. You’ll have to find it yourself.

There's the easy way, and ...

There’s the easy way, and …

Manager relationships are…relationships. Establishing trust is essential for both parties to feel valued, engaged, and satisfied. Getting to that point in a short period of time, without triggering tears or rage, is essential for the long-term health of any relationship. And it doesn’t happen by accident. This post focuses on the employee-manager relationship; feel free to abstract these concepts to other relationships at your own risk.

Building trust requires establishing a mutually agreed level of autonomy for the employee under the guidance of the manager in two key dimensions:

  • time span of discretion: what is the longest duration task for which the employee can take complete accountability? Viewed another way, how long is the manager willing to wait for a status update?
  • delegated decision authority: which decisions can the employee make without consulting and or informing the manager?

Time Span of Discretion

Credit for this term goes to Eliot Jaques, whose book The Requisite Organization is underrepresented in the modern leader’s library. I will warn you that it is not a casual read; be aware that the large conceptual rewards packed into this book require a large investment of attention. With that disclaimer out of the way, the idea from the book that I’m highlighting here is about what duration task the employee has the trust of the manager to execute independently. Does the manager want to see a daily task list and a midday status update? In this case the time span of discretion is somewhere between 4-10 hours. At the other end of the scale, CEOs often embark on multi-year global transformation programs with the hands-off support of their Boards, often requiring quarterly status reports at a maximum.

Delegated Decision Authority

The best metaphor from this concept that I’ve encountered is the Decision Tree from Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations. Just as a tree’s roots, trunk, branches, and leaves have different weighting on the future health of the tree, the levels of decision making have different weighting on the future health of the organization (or the career of the decision maker). I’ve summarized the concept in the table below:

decision tree table

For example, the pair might decide that any decisions around hiring, firing, or promotion are Trunk decisions. Which vendor to choose for the trade show giveaways is a Leaf decision. And so forth.

Now that we’ve defined the two essential components to establishing trust, let’s address the original question of HOW to get there:

  • The Easy Way: proactive, implicit, inductive. Sit down with the other party and discuss, before any specific events occur, what level of decision making authority will be delegated and what is the time bound of discretion. Establish the boundaries of the relationship before they are tested. In another context, how do you learn your way around a new city? Look at a map before you leave the house, ask your neighbors which parts of town to avoid.
  • The Hard Way: reactive, explicit, deductive. Jump into it, wait for things to happen and then talk about whether the events fit within the desired boundaries of the relationship. This approach to learning the new city is to wait for sunset and then wander out the front door with some cash in your front pocket and hope you make it back in one piece.

My intent in writing this piece is to raise your awareness of what will help define trust in your manger relationships and how you are going about establishing it. You can choose to take the hard way without judgement; just be aware of the potential bumps and bruises you might encounter along the way.

Thanks to Dan Schultz for inspiring this post. Questions or feedback? Leave a comment!

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