Building trust at work: Effective autonomy

Often, when we think of having autonomy at work, we frame it against being micromanaged. Today I want to dig in a bit about why that is, and how we can go beyond “don’t micromanage” and into more compelling ways of providing autonomy to our teams.

When we feel micromanaged, we usually feel like our autonomy is being limited in an unnecessary or unproductive way. We feel like we aren’t trusted to handle the fundamentals of whatever it is we’re doing, and that lack of trust feels unfair. We feel instinctively that it’s bad because several of our core needs at work, as defined by trainer, speaker, and equity and inclusion expert Paloma Medina, are threatened: we lack choice, improvement is difficult, our significance feels diminished, and the dynamic feels unequal. It’s so impactful that it’s often quite clear to the person being micromanaged that that’s what’s happening.

It can be a lot harder to identify micromanaging behavior when you’re the one doing it. For a deep dive into how to recognize and avoid your own micromanaging behavior, I recommend checking out the resources the team at The Management Center has shared on how to avoid micromanaging and on developing the skill of delegation generally. Pay close attention to those delegation resources: developing effective delegation skills is the best defense against accidental micromanagement.

But you don’t have to stop there! Effective delegation is the right foundation to build on; from there, you can build up more challenging, interesting ways to establish autonomy for your team without sacrificing the effectiveness that you’re accountable for as the manager or the support your team needs from you.

Understand your team members’ key questions.

The best balance of autonomy, support, and effectiveness leaves a team member feeling like they have control over the areas they’re best at, and clear guidance in the places where they need it most. That’s different for every person and every project, so when you set out to create that balance as a manager, it’s important to start by understanding your team members’ working styles. I like to use the framework Carson Tate puts forth in her book Work Simply, in which she describes productivity styles partly in terms of what questions you tend gravitate toward without prompting, and which questions you have to be consciously reminded to pay attention to.

In Tate’s framework, I’m a Prioritizer/Planner, which means questions that start with “What” and “How” are naturally going to be at the front of my mind at any new project. It also means that I have to consciously remind myself to pay attention to questions that start with “Why” (a key question for Visualizers) and “Who” (a key question for Arrangers), or I’ll present a variety of risks to the success of the project: difficulty collaborating with my colleagues who have other productivity styles; outcomes that miss the mark for key stakeholders; or elegantly crafted solutions that don’t get at the ultimate desired goal.

Because I gravitate toward “what” and “how” questions, as an employee, I tend to feel motivated when given autonomy in answering those questions, not just because I see those as my own strengths, but also because I default to seeing those answers as important to the success of a project. (Who and Why questions are important too! It’s just that I need more active reminders about them.) In Medina’s BICEPS terms, if I sense that my manager trusts me to answer my key questions, it feeds both my Choice and Significance core needs at work.

For a senior-level employee who already has lots of autonomy in the area of their key questions, the next step is to help them frame their work against the key questions of others on your team, on the board, or in leadership. This can be tough emotionally: when you have answered your key questions deeply and thoroughly, interrogating the work from another angle can feel like a challenge to your expertise. Letting go of that defensive feeling and allowing yourself to ask those other questions opens up all kinds of possibilities for effective collaboration, and if you can enable that effective collaboration as a manager, you’ll be doing your most valuable work.

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.

Building trust at work: Focused transparency

Rocks and blue sky reflected in still, clear water at Joshua Tree National Park

Transparency, as a management principle, is complicated. In its simplest form, it’s just sharing information with your team. A policy of total transparency would mean that you hold no information back from your team, regardless of how small the detail and regardless of how much potential it has to change over time. It’s related to clarity and to trust, but there are important distinctions between all three.

I think of the difference between transparency and clarity as being essentially a matter of focus. To illustrate what I mean by that, think of a pair of prescription eyeglasses compared to a pair of fashion glasses with no prescription in the lenses. Both are transparent; only the prescription eyeglasses have a goal of increased clarity. Your goal as a manager is to be the right pair of prescription glasses for your team: some individuals will need a stronger prescription (more help focusing within the range of information that you’re being transparent about) and some will need less (just give them the facts, they’ll extrapolate for themselves).

Focused transparency is one of the raw materials needed to build an infrastructure of trust, because it helps a team understand what they’re trusting their manager to do. “I trust you” is a complete sentence, but in a work context, a more complete sentence is “I trust you to [verb].” That can be as general as “I trust you to act from our company’s core values” or as specific as “I trust you to catch any grammatical errors when reviewing my marketing copy,” but it’s always tied to some kind of action.

Building trust on a team requires that a manager is transparent about several categories of information:

What the team’s goals are

The statement you want from your team here is “I trust my manager to keep our focus in the right place.” If the team doesn’t know what its overall goals are, no one on the team can tell whether or not they are doing a good job, nor can they trust the direction that you’re leading them in (because they don’t know what direction that is). It’s the manager’s job to communicate the team’s goals, and to do it clearly and consistently. In a remote environment, having the goals recorded on a document that’s shared, easily accessible, and referenced often can help to bake this into an organization’s process. For example, if you have a shared meeting agenda, keep your high-level goals written at the top of the document and review them, along with any progress that has been made toward them, at the start of each team meeting. It’s also helpful to ensure that the team understands any major obstacles that need to be cleared in order for those goals to be met.

How each individual’s work ties back to the team’s overall goals

An individual who knows how their own work connects to the overall team goals will have an easier time trusting that their manager has a clear vision for their work. They’ll be able to trust that the manager is including them in the overall team strategy, and that the manager sees them as an integral part of the team. You can create this understanding by framing each new assignment with its potential impact on team goals (The Management Center has a great delegation guideline to help you make this framing a habit). Follow that up with regular check-ins in your one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, and reinforce it by bringing the team’s attention to high-impact individual accomplishments in a shared online channel or during team meetings.

How the team knows if their goals are being met

Now that the team goals are clear to everyone, being able to see for themselves when an overall team goal is being met is the next step in effective, transparent communication. Quantitative goals can be tracked through easily accessible (though maybe not easily editable!) reports in your team’s database, a well-placed pivot chart in a shared spreadsheet, or regular updates in a shared team channel. While it’s possible to track progress against a qualitative goal with regular team conversations, surveys, and individual check-ins, it’s worthwhile whenever possible to find quantitatively measurable/trackable questions that can act as proxies to indicate you’re reaching that goal (a “key result” in the “objective/key result” or OKR framework) that you can use to report on progress toward that goal over time. For more on OKRs, check out Christina Wodtke’s book Radical Focus.

How an individual’s work is evaluated

We’ve talked about the importance of a consistent feedback framework when you need an employee to change how they’re working; similarly important is a clear set of expectations around how an employee’s work is evaluated. We’ll dig into the value of clear evaluation rubrics in a future post.

When to limit transparency

There are also some forms of transparency that can negatively impact a team’s ability to work together. Just as important as sharing the information above, a manager sometimes needs to build trust on their team by keeping certain kinds of information confidential, only sharing with those need to know in order to do their jobs effectively:

  • Information about interpersonal conflicts
  • Personal or medical information a team member has disclosed because it’s affecting them at work
  • A team member’s status relative to any disciplinary action at work

There are also some areas where opinions and cultural norms vary widely regarding how transparent one should be at work, and whether you choose to be open about these will depend on your situation.

  • Salaries or salary ranges (my personal preference is to be transparent about salary ranges for every role, at a bare minimum)
  • Upcoming potential changes that aren’t confirmed, or not certain yet (in particular, this can negatively impact folks who have a tendency to be anxious about change – which is a lot of people! – without providing them with anything they can use to make a decision)

Although we’re rarely in a position to provide 100% transparency to our team, it’s incumbent upon us as managers to provide context to our teams to help them understand the relationship of their work to the effort of the team as a whole. Understanding that context helps team members understand what they’re trusting their colleagues to do, allowing them to reinforce and maintain that trust when they see the results of everyone’s work.

Building trust at work

That trust is an essential building block for functional and equitable teams might feel like it should go without saying. It’s the invisible infrastructure that enables clear, candid communication among team members, and like my beloved local subway system, it requires constant maintenance. A solid infrastructure of trust also supports you, the manager, in creating the space you need to do the work you’re uniquely situated for:

  • Setting goals for your team and communicating them clearly and constantly
  • Identifying and removing obstacles to your team’s effectiveness
  • Synthesizing your team’s work
  • Connecting the people with the right skills to handle different parts of a project
  • Helping your team recognize when they’ve achieved a goal together.

In other words, in order to do their best work, your team needs to trust that the goals you’re setting will get you where you’re collectively trying to go; that your primary motivation in making system changes is to enable them to be as effective as possible; that you have a clear understanding of the impact of their work (if not the details of how to do it) and what their skill sets are; and that you can both identify when a goal has been met and show that you value that effort.

As a leader in a mission-driven company, you’ve likely got a built-in scientific advantage in the drive to establish deeper trust in your team. Research in the neuroscience of trust has shown “that having a sense of purpose stimulates oxytocin production [in the brain], as does trust. Trust and purpose then mutually reinforce each other, providing a mechanism for extended oxytocin release, which produces happiness.” In a mission-driven organization, your team is more likely to be there because they share a commitment to your mission, which can provide a more direct sense of purpose… but you’ve still got work to do to keep that mutual reinforcement cycle humming along.

In an article for First Round, a website focused on resources for tech startups, Molly Graham describes the process of developing trust in your team as “giving away your Legos.” Often, new managers are in that position at least in part because they excelled at their work as an individual contributor. If you’re accustomed to getting praise for your work because of your ability to write an excellent blog post, provide outstanding direct customer service to your patrons at the box office, or capture the hearts and dollars of major donors, it can be difficult to adjust to a role in which the value of your work is measured in other people’s effectiveness. There’s a strong impulse to keep as much control over your team’s output as possible, often to the point of doing much of the work yourself. This can be effective behavior in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. To expand your impact, you need to be able to give away your Legos – which requires you to build your infrastructure of trust.

At the same time that you’re developing trust in your team, you need your team to develop trust in you. In each direction, that trust is driven by transparency and reinforcement, and it’s demonstrated through autonomy and vulnerability; over the next several weeks, we’ll dig into each of those and how they play out in a management context.

Receiving difficult feedback from your team

Looking up at a pair of joshua trees

Last week we looked at a framework for delivering feedback with clarity and equity. Now let’s examine the other side of the coin and talk about one of the toughest kinds of work conversation: when a report needs to tell you about something you’re doing (or not doing) that’s having a negative impact on the team.

When your team members tell you candidly about things that you need to improve personally, it’s important for you to model the way you want constructive feedback to be received. Often, the first time a team member gives you this kind of feedback, they’re feeling pretty vulnerable; they might trust you generally, but don’t know how you’re going to react to this, so being candid about what needs to change can feel like a professional or personal risk. You want them to feel supported in that vulnerability, and for them to understand that this was a risk worth taking.

My own mantra about this is “don’t take it personally; do take it seriously.” I even repeat this to myself before responding to criticism. This is easy to say, but it’s very difficult not to take feedback about your work personally. As I’ve talked about before on this blog, we live in a work culture where our personal – even moral – value is often equated with how much we work, and how hard we work. This is harmful for a number of reasons. For one, it makes it difficult to separate your fundamental worth as a person from your need to improve at some particular task or your need to pay more attention to some particular thing. That may sound overstated, but in many cases it’s what it feels like to receive negative feedback at work.

To help keep those feelings from getting the best of you during the conversation, I find it useful to return to start thinking about it in terms of the feedback structure we talked about in the last post. When you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback from your direct reports, you have an opportunity to reinforce your feedback structure, and to use it to help establish the parameters for how this difficult conversation proceeds. Just as you would try to do when delivering difficult feedback, you want your report to describe what the behavior they’ve seen is, tell you what the impact of the behavior is on them/their teammates, and if they’re clear on what they’d like to have happen in order to resolve the issue, make a request.

If you don’t fully understand the behavior they’re describing, its impact, and the request that’s being made of you, ask clarifying questions once your report seems done sharing what they’ve had to say. Practice approaching your questions from a place of curiosity instead of defensiveness. Framing them with “help me understand…” or “can you say more about…” can remind you of the tone you want to set and help you focus on the end goal of the conversation, which is identifying the areas in which you need to improve. Asking these questions before offering any reasons or justifications for your actions can also help reduce real or perceived feelings of defensiveness. If it feels appropriate, go ahead and offer context when you’ve demonstrated that you understand the impact of your actions, particularly if your report is asking you to change behavior that needs to remain in place for a specific reason.

Receiving difficult feedback about someone else

If you have more than one direct report, it’s also important to encourage candid communication among your team members, and to understand when it’s important for you to step in during a potential conflict. If Colleague A comes to you with a concern about the behavior or work of Colleague B, there are a couple of questions for you to consider:

• Are you the right person to deliver this feedback to Colleague B? Sometimes, receiving difficult feedback from a third party can trigger feelings of defensiveness – the person receiving the feedback ends up focusing on “why didn’t A just tell me themselves?” rather than on the behavior they need to adjust.

• Is this feedback really for Colleague B, or is it for you? It may be the case that your team members don’t have accurate expectations around each other’s job responsibilities, and it’s your job to help make that clear.

If you think the feedback is something that Colleague B needs to hear, and that Colleague A could reasonably/safely approach B about it directly, go ahead and ask: “is that something you’d feel comfortable talking to B about directly?” Often, the answer will be yes, and the report may have come to you because they were unsure about protocol or worried about overstepping boundaries. Make it clear that even though you’re encouraging them to have that conversation, it’s good that they brought the concern to you, because sometimes that feedback really is for you and not the other person.

In many cases, Colleague A may just need to hear a little encouragement and permission to provide that direct feedback to Colleague B. Remind them of your feedback structure as a way to guide them through the conversation; if they haven’t brought the concern to you already formulated in terms of behavior-impact-question/request, work though the structure with them to make sure they can do that before sending them off to talk to Colleague B.

If the person reporting the behavior wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it directly with their colleague, you’ve got a little more digging to do. In this kind of situation, the person reporting the issue to you is not responsible for coming up with a specific request for how the issue gets addressed. You need them to tell you about the behavior and its impact; following the rest of the feedback process is your responsibility.

If the issue is more along the lines of a serious concern about the individual’s job performance, you’re likely the right person to handle the feedback conversation. If at all possible, keep the name/role of the person who reported the behavior confidential; if you can’t reasonably provide the feedback while maintaining confidentiality with Colleague A, make sure to tell A that before you talk with Colleague B.

Maintaining your curiosity and your commitment to using consistent, structured feedback when you’re on the receiving end will help build trust with your team. You’ll need that trust to get through the current moment of uncertainty, and it will serve you well as the world continues to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Note: In situations where the behavior being reported is harassment, or potentially illegal, you may need to rope in human resources, your board, or another oversight authority (up to and including your organization’s legal counsel, your local or state employment commission, or if you’re in the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, depending on the severity of the issue) to identify next steps. If you’re not sure about your situation or what the right course of action is, WorkplaceFairness.org may be a good place to start learning more.