Things to Figure Out as a New Manager: Part 5, Trust

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Credit : Flickr / Glenn Lascuña

This is the fifth and final part of the new manager series. Yes, there’s plenty more to figure out, but the idea is that with some sense of these things you will have the basics under control, and then you can figure out what your team needs from you and go from there.

The fifth part is trust, because it builds on the other four. Trust is a characteristic of human relationships more related to respect than to like. It’s something you need to earn, rather than expect. It’s something you need to create any kind of change, and to get people to follow you into the unknown.

If you’ve figured out your schedule, you’ll be able to be where you said you would be. If you’ve figured out social support you won’t ask too much from those who report to you. If you’ve figured out communication, people will feel like they can talk to you and make sense of what you say. If you’ve figured out feedback, people will know that you will tell them what they do well, what they can do better, and that you’re always thinking about what you need to do better, too.

This is your foundation. When it comes to getting people to trust me, I have a simple rule: never ask for it. Just earn it. Lack of trust is the biggest, most implicit piece of feedback. If someone seems not to trust you, return to these pillars – have you been flakey on 1:1s? Sort your schedule out. Are they tuned into your anxiety? Figure out what support you need, and get it. Do you not communicate together well? Make more of an effort to adjust to their communication style. Do they not feel recognized or supported? Pay more attention to their work and highlight the things they do well. Or – give them clear information about what they need to do to be successful.

Motivations matter here. We’ve all encountered people who we didn’t trust because we felt they were selfishly motivated or just somehow inauthentic. We earn trust, not by seeking trust out directly, but by building the foundation of a strong and respectful relationship. Trust follows. Or doesn’t. Regardless – we do the right thing, for the right reasons.

It’s also important to acknowledge and appreciate acts of trust. The question someone asks, not knowing how you’ll react to it, or how supportive you will be. The failure someone owns up to, before they know how you’ll handle it. The risk that someone takes when they join the team.

Giving Trust

Whilst we can expect to earn trust ourselves, we can give it freely. Distrustful people are exhausting, and paranoid people cannot build a strong team.

But understanding people means understanding what the boundaries of that trust should be. You might trust someone to architect a system, that doesn’t mean you don’t ask any questions about the decisions they make. You can trust someone to do something, that doesn’t mean you never follow up to see how it went. You can trust someone and promote them to manage under you, but that doesn’t mean that you never check in with their reports to see how that’s going. Trust means that you bet on someone’s capacity to grow into something – it doesn’t mean you never help them along the way there.

Trust and accountability go together. Accountability works both ways – it’s hard to hold people accountable without making yourself accountable. When managers are flakey, this can bleed down onto the team. Accountability – like trust – rests on respect, rather than like. If people don’t take you seriously, even if they like you, you can find yourself being held accountable for a team you can’t hold accountable. This is unlikely to end well for anyone, least of all you.

Special Types of Trust

There are two people I seek out – people who can be relied on (trusted?) in a particular way.

The Person Who Keeps It Real

This is the person who tells you the truth, even when they think it’s not what you want to hear – in fact, especially when they think it’s not what you want to hear. This is a great person to have around.

The Super Reliable

The person who if you ask them for something, it’s done. Use judiciously. Appreciate tremendously. When there’s some kind of crisis and you feel overwhelmed, this is the person you turn to.

Now What?

I want to tie this series up in a neat little bow, but I’ll refrain. People are messy. The process of learning to people is messy. You’ll screw up. Some people you’ll try hard with, and you still won’t succeed. But if you act with kindness and empathy, avoid the trap of being self-serving, and work really hard… it’ll probably be okay.

This is part 5 of a series aimed at new engineering managers. Part 1 was about figuring out your schedule. Part 2 was about social support. Part 3 was about communication. Part 4 was about feedback. For help and support, you can also ask for an invitation to the New-ish Eng Manager Slack.