Fear, Trust, and Responsibility
September, 2020 by Paul De Goes
The Year of Fear
Are you afraid?
2020 has given us reason for fear, particularly those of us in the U.S.: the coronavirus pandemic, nightly riots in the streets of our greatest cities, and fires that rage uncontained across millions of acres, leaving behind sluggish curtains of ash in a grim parody of wintertime snowfall.
But that’s not all. In the wake of forced business closures, the decline of commercial real estate, and unparalleled government spending, we see the shadows of national economic decline or perhaps even collapse.
These are troubling times. But the thing about troubling times, is that they tend to bring out what we’re made of.
Consider the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. From the same terrible situation have come both tales of heroism and barbarity: men and women who gave of themselves and their resources to care for the sick and wounded, and others who abused the weak, sick, and impoverished to fatten their own bank accounts.
Given this, I invite you to ponder with me the following question: what will these difficult days make of us, and what will we make of them?
A Year for Leadership
Troubling times call for clarity of thought. They call for action. They call for leaders.
Consider the harm that an evil dictator may cause (Hitler) or the tremendous benefit that can arise as the result of a great leader (Abraham Lincoln). During times of trouble, we look to leaders to inspire us, to focus us, but above all, to model for us our better natures.
Enter you. Yes, you, whoever you are! In one way or another, we all end up leading at some point in our lives—intentionally or unintentionally. Oftentimes, leadership finds us in unexpected ways: we are observed by our children giving money to a homeless woman, we notice someone isolated and alone at a social gathering and walk over to say hello.
Regardless of what arena you lead in, or even if you’re just leading your own self (a crucial skill for wanderers like myself), know that times of pressure and stress serve as your very own hero’s call. You are going to lead this year. The question is not, “will you lead” but rather, “how will you lead?”
Now, I work in software, where the topic of fear-based vs trust-based cultures is something of a trending topic, so the question of how I am going to lead becomes a little more straightforward. When it comes to leading in a business setting, there are a couple of well-trodden roads I can take: fear-based or trust-based leadership.
Stoke that fear.
This one’s tried and true. Line up under the biggest Shark you can find, make him/her happy, and hope you can keep it that way.
Your primary concern here is to ensure that everyone understands how much they need you, and that they’re in a constant state of fear and/or uncertainty that causes them to rely upon you. Clarity and calm are your enemies. Oppose these at all costs. Above all, never say question the Shark.
Sure, you’ll lose the trust of your direct reports, real productivity and innovation will plummet, and competent members of your organization will bail at the first opportunity, but who cares? They’re just replaceable resources after all! Your success metric is your organizational clout, which is conveniently and directly tied to how happy you can make your Shark.
This is fear-based culture at its core.
Cultivate trust and responsibility
This option is not for the faint of heart. Leaving aside all the extra work you have to put in, you should know up front that, in the real world, nice people do often finish last. If you’re in it primarily for yourself, you’re going to be disappointed.
The strategy here is to create an environment of mutual trust and accountability. You will realistically evaluate business needs, provide options, commit realistically, and then deliver. Then you’ll expect the same from those around you, both up and down the organization hierarchy.
You’ll earn the trust of your direct reports, foster real productivity and innovation, and create an ecosystem where the best and brightest are challenged to grow as and are equally fulfilled in delivering on business objectives.
This is the holy grail of leadership: a world in which everyone works together openly and honestly, with full self and mutual accountability, to win. And as the group wins, so rises the individual.
This is what a trust-based culture is all about.
Moving from Fear to Trust
Most of us live and work somewhere between these two paradigms. I’ve never worked in a company that was 100% fear OR trust based; in the real world, businesses are guided by a complex mix of contradicting philosophies, agendas, and figures.
So, under the assumption that you are one of those leaders who is interested in cultivating a trust-based culture, I offer these five tips to help you and your organization move away from fear towards trust.
#1 Take Ownership
It all starts and ends with you. You must own not only your own actions, commitments, and mistakes, but those of everyone who reports to you.
This doesn’t mean taking credit for everything your team accomplishes. It means taking the beating for your team’s mistakes while letting them get the praise for the improvements you firmly, persistently, but gently guide them into.
#2 Renounce Fear
Reject unhealthy fear: fear of your boss, fear of your reports, fear of your peers. Above all, reject the use of fear as a control methodology. There is no quicker way to lose good people (mentally, emotionally, but also positionally) than to threaten them — implicitly or otherwise.
We humans can work incredibly well under stress for a very short time. After that, we burn out, and operate perpetually under our ability. Innovation and productivity never arise from a burned-out work force.
On the other hand, we tend to excel when: we’re given an ownership stake in our work, we feel invested in it, and we know that our work is appreciated. In other words, we perform well when we want to do what we do. This is something fear can never buy you, but an ounce of compassion with a dash of motivation, and a touch of encouragement just might.
No matter how tempting it may be, your job is to support, to encourage, to foster, and to coach — never to threaten.
Once you’ve reached the zen-like state of fearlessness advocated above it’s time to extend that state to others, starting with those who report to you. Talk openly about fear and trust cultures, about your own failures, and ways you’re working to improve yourself.
Then move to your peers, spreading an ideology of fearless inquiry, extreme ownership, and passionate accountability. Not everyone will agree with you. Some will directly oppose you. But that’s ok; for every one of those folks, there will be another one or two who will at least hear what you have to say. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll start to develop a circle of like-minded individuals with whom you can work to gradually, patiently, gently foster trust, commitment, and accountability at a broader level.
Be patient. Persevere, build relationships, and prove your methodology by helping your team(s) and your peers to win. This kind of victory truly is its own reward.
At the heart of trust-based culture lies this simple principle. You cannot accomplish your objectives alone. You must vest power in others, trust them, and commit to winning only with and through them.
This means vesting power in others even when you might disagree with them. Even when you know they’re going to make costly mistakes. It means giving them the chance to fail at your expense.
Be forewarned, empowering others requires humility. You have to listen — a lot. You have to trust that you’ve put people into positions of authority for a reason (in other words, trust yourself) and that they are both closer to the problem and better informed about it than you are. They will often be better equipped to make a decision on issues than you, and this is by design.
Your goal should be to give as much power as reasonably possible to your reports, so that they can achieve business objectives in ways and with outcomes beyond your wildest dreams. By empowering them to excel, you are in fact empowering yourself. Trusted teammates extend and enhance your abilities rather than detract from them. In their success, you find your own.
#5 Keep Accounts
Trust cultures fall apart the moment individuals fail to hold themselves and others accountable. Accountability is simply following through with your commitments. This starts with you and holding yourself accountable, but it also applies to your direct reports.
Trust is a two-way street. Your team must know they can count on you, and you must know that you can count on them. This means expecting your team members to commit, and then requiring them to follow through on those commitments.
We’re obviously not talking about deadlines, estimation, or scheduling here. We’re talking about things that are directly in your control and in the control of your team members: a verbal commitment to review a document by a certain time, the agreement to work full-time on a project from a home office, etc.
These items may sound small, but they’re the foundation on which trust — and every great team — is built.
We live in a frightening world, but that’s no reason to give in to fear. In fact, it’s a reason to oppose fear, since fear is the enemy of freedom, initiative, productivity and innovation. In our personal and business lives, we should act as bastions of fearless, clear-headed purpose and action.
Let us stand together by encouraging an environment of openness, accountability, personal commitment, and mutual success. It’s something that we can achieve — if we’re patient, if we’re principled, and if we work together.
Special thanks to my co-workers Nikita Chong and Sonia Darlison for their contributions to the content and polish of this article!
About Paul De Goes
Paul is a freelance writer, editor, and aspiring author. He blogs, writes science fiction and fantasy novels, and raises four children with the incomparable support of his amazing wife.
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