Spoiler alert: you can take dissent as a compliment.
Trust makes your job as a leader easier in just about every way possible. Your teams make decisions faster (and revisit them less often). People pro-actively admit to and learn from mistakes instead of scrambling to hide them.
It’s easy enough to know your own level of trust in the people you lead. But gauging how they feel about you is a different story. You can’t ask point-blank–not if you hope to get reliable, authentic responses.
Fortunately, you don’t have to. Ask yourself these proxy questions instead.
If everyone always says “yes,” you’ve got a high-compliance environment–which is not the same as high-trust. People who trust you will offer respectful dissent. They’ll engage in discussion and, ultimately, rally behind decisions (even when they disagree).
This includes saying “we” instead of “I” or “you” when talking about successes or failures. Does the company generally prefer the term “team members” or “teammates” over “employees” or “co-workers”? “Leaders” over “managers”? The choice of words provides subtle clues as to how your staff view their place in the company–and yours.
Tolerance for honest mistakes encourages creative thinking and calculated risks. When you share your failures and what you learned from them, it sends a strong signal to others that the tolerance is real. The last thing you need is people covering up their mistakes and (worse) unknowingly repeating someone else’s.
I don’t just mean the executives and other taste-makers around the company (although it’s obviously extra-important that they embody the values). If you see examples of people from front-line customer service reps to accounting to your top brass using your values to guide decisions and behavior, that’s a sign you’re working with true believers.
P.s.: If they’re not living the values, consider whether you have values worth living.
Transparency demonstrates trust in your people, which pays dividends of their trust in you. Opening up sounds scary at first, but in truth, there’s very little that needs to be locked down (salary and other personal data come to mind). At Atlassian, even information on revenue, expenditures, and customer count is discoverable by anyone on staff who cares to look for it. And in 15 years, we’ve yet to experience any leaks.
Of course, you don’t have to take it to that extreme. Making network drives, shareable documents, wiki pages, and chat rooms “open by default” goes a long way.
Being cagey about focus areas and strategies not only encourages distrust from your rank-and-file, it’s downright foolish. Nobody can think about how their work contributes to the bigger picture is they don’t know what that bigger picture is. Similarly, sharing performance data only with a blessed few guarantees everyone else will be making decisions about their work based on a combination of rumor and assumptions–most of which will be false.
When a major publication mentions your company in a favorable light, people working in a high-trust environment will be sharing the heck out of it–and not just the PR team. Social sharing is a sign that team members are confident in the direction the company is headed, proud of their contribution, and want to incorporate that into their personal brand. On average, you might see 7-10% sharing company content on social. In uber-engaged workplaces, it might rise as high as 30%.
Professional development and personal growth thrive on feedback throughout the year (not just at annual review time). When trust is high, you’ll notice a steady flow of high-fives and respectful-but-challenging questions coming your way. You’ll also notice feedback being given informally amongst teammates. Peer reviews of work in progress, design sparring, code reviews, project retrospectives… if these are baked into your business-as-usual, that’s a Good Sign™.
Too often, the C-suite gets seduced by the notion that they’re the only ones with the vision (and in some cases, intellect) to know where to steer the company. But a new breed of executives understands that being on the front lines working with customers and/or making the product have the perfect vantage point from which to see opportunities. These execs make a habit of soliciting ideas for major initiatives and strategic focus areas. By asking for input, you demonstrate confidence in your staff. In return, staff tend to rally behind whichever ideas are selected for action, even if they would’ve chosen differently.
In companies with high-trust cultures, top brass typically have open-door policies. Anyone in the company can schedule a few minutes to talk about product direction, career development, internal operations, etc.
If you’ve answered “yes” to all 10 (and done so with a straight face), congratulations! You’ve got the key ingredients for leading a company that is collaborative, creative, and generally crushing it. If fewer than three questions got an affirmative, you’ve got some work to do–but take heart.
Building a culture of trust takes time, but it starts with you. Even if you’re not in a position to influence big things like opening up tools and information, there are lots of things you can do as a leader. Remember: leadership is personal, not positional. Anyone from the CEO down to the intern who started last week can lead by example.
This article was originally published at Inc.com.