Building trust at work: Predictability in unpredictable times

Garden scene with thick, visible tree roots in the foreground

In school, we’re taught to put our faith in the scientific method. That is, we’re taught that the core of our ability to trust the results of scientific experiments is their repeatability. Repetition, consistency, predictability – these aren’t always words that leaders wants to hear applied to themselves, but in the context of trust-building within your organization, they’re foundational.

The most straightforward path to building trust is, as Anil Dash puts it, “being boring. That is, being incredibly, mind-numbingly consistent.” In many areas of our lives at work, there are clear ways to do that: establish a pay schedule and stick to it; create evaluation rubrics that help people understand what’s expected of them and how to do “a good job”; keep meetings running on schedule; and so on.

However. We are living in wildly unpredictable times, and that makes it even more important for us as managers and leaders to create patterns of consistency wherever possible. (If you haven’t yet read through all of Lara Hogan’s writing on creating predictability in times of crisis and generally leading through difficult times, I invite you to carve out an hour over the next week to read through them and think about what actions those ideas might prompt you to take with your team.)

And I fully believe that doing that work now will pay off in the long run, not just in moments of extreme difficulty: if you’re able to create a measure of predictability and consistency with your team now, you’re going to be able to build on that foundation of trust to do incredible things when your team is operating at full capacity.

So how do we approach creating those patterns of consistency?

In times and industries where “the only constant is change,” the real constant for managers and leaders is decision-making. The more you can create predictability around your decision-making process, the easier it will be for your team to understand your likely responses to change, and to trust you to lead the team through change in a way that enables them to continue to do their best work. If you don’t yet have a clear sense of what drives your decision-making process, here’s where I recommend getting started:

Articulate what’s most important to you.

Now is a great time to have your organization’s mission, vision, and core values front and center in your workspace. It’s (always) likely that you can’t make everything happen that you’d like to; assess the priority of your various projects and day-to-day work based on what keeps you closest to your mission, creates motion toward your vision, and aligns with your core values. Having a clear sense of what’s important – and ensuring that “the health and well-being of our employees” is high on that list – will help you make decisions that have a clear, predictable pattern.

Overcommunicate the “why” behind your decisons.

Once you’ve articulated that set of priorities to yourself, it’s time to communicate them to your staff. That means not just holding an all-hands meeting where you share that you’ve been doing this thinking – although I recommend that! – but also establishing that communication as a pattern by constantly sharing why you’re making decisions, even on judgment calls that feel small or inconsequential. Yes, sometimes you need to make quick, time-dependent calls, but the more you can articulate the reasoning behind your decisions, the more your team will be able to 1) anticipate your decisions based on those reasoning patterns and 2) see the consistency in your approach to change.

Your team won’t always care about the “why” in the moment. That’s fine – it’s still important for you to share, not least because it holds you accountable for understanding the motivation behind your own decisions.

When you change your mind, share the “why.

Establishing predictability and consistency is often hardest when we need to reverse a decision we’ve shared with our team, something that feels constant right now but happens regularly even in the best of times. Sometimes you’re going to make one decision that’s the right one based on the information you have at the time, and then you’ll get new information that requires you to change your mind. That’s “expected behavior,” as we say in tech.

Those moments are perhaps the most crucial for you to share the “why,” both of the original decision and of the new direction. As long as your team understands what drives those decisions, they will be able to trust your ability to lead through change, which in turn bolsters that ability for you.

One final note here: What I’m asking you to do here is to be vulnerable with your team, to show that you don’t always have all the answers, to let them in on your thought process. That kind of vulnerability is both very difficult and essential to leading through moments of difficulty. More on that in our next post.

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