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#51 Trust Is Important!

by Steven Cerri on April 2, 2008

Where does trust fit into management?

Hello everyone!

I gave a presentation at the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) last week on the 10 Pitfalls that can keep engineers and technical professionals from advancing up the technology management ladder. During the presentation I mentioned the word “trust” and I tend to down play the importance of trust in management, much to the surprise of many. I’d rather play up the need and use of open and frequent communication as a management tool instead of trust.

The reason for this is that many engineers equate trust with “leave me alone to do my work”. Well, as much as managers might like to leave some direct reports alone to succeed, there are plenty of direct reports, who if left alone, will do the opposite. So I resist the idea of, “If my manager trusts me, he or she will leave me alone to do my work and not hound me, or ask for status reports every week, or ask for a project review once a month. Just let me do my work and I’ll come back with the finished product.”

In my presentation I made the statement that I don’t put much attention on “trust”. In fact, I focus on communication and I think trust is overrated.

A few minutes after this statement an audience member asked me a question. The question essentially was, “Do you really think that trust is not very important? Don’t you think that people want to feel trusted? I know people want to feel trusted in their work environment.”

My response was essentially something like this: “I sometimes make statements that are a little provocative to make a point, and my statement about trust was such a statement. However, my point is that people often equate trust with “blind trust”. If you trust me you’ll leave me alone. I know we all want to be trusted. I want to be trusted. But what does being trusted mean? If it means leave me alone, it won’t work.”

I then went on to indicate that there were seven parameters that I have developed through my career that I use to determine what management style I will use in a given situation. They include:

1. Where the expertise resides, with the direct report or with the manager or somewhere else

2. The risk of the task or project

3. The timeframe of the task or project.

etc. to the 7th parameter.

I then went on to show that depending on the parameter and depending on the answer to the question regarding the parameter, I might be driven to select a different management style than might be expected. For example, if the project was a high risk project, that would lead me to manage more tightly than if the project were very low risk. And in this way, I evaluate the seven parameters and emerge with a management style for success in that “context”.

That was essentially my answer. And yet I thought more about it on the drive home. The next day I realized that there was another piece to this explanation that I had not included that I’d now like to include and here it is.

If we look at the seven parameters I call “Contextual Definition” which comprise the assessment of the management situation, we find that of the seven parameters only one, I repeat, only one pertains to the direct report. That parameter is the “location” of the expertise. Does the expertise lie with the direct report or with the manager? Once again, this is the only parameter that relates to the the direct report and therefore, it is the only parameter that relates to “trust”.

What I’m saying is that when I assess a situation in order to determine what the best management style is for success, only one of seven variables I’m taking into account has anything to do with trusting the direct report. The other six parameters have more to do with the cold, hard facts of the project or task. From this perspective, it becomes obvious that trust and therefore, the management style based on trust, i.e., “leave me alone to do my work” can end up far down the list of priorities in determining the optimum management style. And in fact, when the direct report understands this, micromanagement and any concern for “trust” actually disappears.

Here is a perfect example. The night I gave my presentation, I had an opportunity to talk to one of my colleagues who was at the event. I knew was preparing to move from full-time employment to part-time employment. He was moving into semi-retirement. I asked him if his move to semi-retirement was on schedule and he said that it was a little behind, but it was indeed moving forward. Now this man is what I would call a technical manager. He is a manager but is also up on the technology enough to be able to add value not only from the management perspective but also from the technical perspective.

I asked him if he had found his replacement yet and he indicated that he had and he was in fact, presently training him. I incorrectly assumed that the new manager would be a younger person and so I asked, “How old is your replacement?” My friend responded that his replacement was in his “early to mid-fifties”. He then went on to say that this new manager that he was training was a seasoned manager but didn’t know the department and the technology that well, and so the departing manager, my colleague, was training the new manager in these areas.

Now how do we interpret this situation and the explanation? I think there are several possible interpretations as follows:

1. The new manager could feel micromanaged because, come on, this is a seasoned manager. He can certainly be left alone to figure out the department and come up to speed on the technology. Why does he need to be “trained” by the outgoing manager?

2. The new manager could feel grateful because he doesn’t understand the department and the technology all that well yet, and any help would be appreciated.

3. Or, my colleague could be applying absolutely the best management approach because the situation calls for it as follows:

a. Were is the expertise? It is with my colleague. The new manager is not the expert in the department nor the technology. Therefore, close management supervision is absolutely what is called for. (By the way, this is the only parameter of the seven that anything to do with trust.)

b. What is the risk? The risk is relatively high. Putting a new person in this position could jeopardize current projects. Therefore, close management supervision initially is absolutely what is called for.

c. What is the timeframe? Well, my colleague is already behind his schedule to move to part-time. The sooner this new manager comes up to speed, the better. Therefore, close management supervision is absolutely what is called for.

The other four parameters likewise call for close supervision or are at the least, neutral. Therefore, the most effective management approach is the one my colleague is currently using. Now I don’t know if he explained his thought processes to the new manager, or if he even went through this thought process. He may just have a gut sense of what to do. And in fact, the two managers may both be good enough to understand with a few words that this is the best approach. Whatever the situation, when a manager lays out this thought process to a direct report, and explains the management style selection process, and emphasizes that trust is not the driver, but the situation, the “context” is, the concern for “trust me by leaving me alone” just disappears. I’ve used this approach over and over and it always, and I mean always, works. I’ve coached people in the specific use of this approach in their situations and it has always worked, so far….

This then is why I say, “I just don’t focus much on the trust issue”.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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