Dear Dr. Graham:

Your previous newsletter about following a respected leader was especially interesting, because I also recently assumed a new position where I’m expected to make significant changes. But I’m following a leader who wasn’t viewed positively. In fact, this team seems to expect bad things from me.

What can I do to build trust where it hasn’t existed before?

Positive Paul

Dear Paul,

It sounds like you already know that trust is built through small interactions over time. But there are some actions you can take now to get things headed in the right direction:

1. Ask management about past problems. Find one or two trusted peers or someone above your rank who can tell you what went wrong with the previous leader. That frame of reference will help you understand specifically what’s worrying your team.

2. Ask your people about their concerns — indirectly. Rather than asking your team what went wrong with the previous leader, ask “What are you most looking for in a leader?” You’re likely to get a list of things that leader didn’t do well. (“I want my boss to not make snap judgements.” Or, “I want my manager to not lose his temper.”) Such responses can help you avoid repeating the previous leader’s pitfalls.

3. Avoid those previous pitfalls. To show that you’re not going to repeat negative patterns, you may have to name what is happening with you. For instance, if the previous leader made snap judgements, and you must make a fast decision, it will help build trust if you explain the research and data behind your decision. If the previous leader lost his temper, you should pay really close attention to what you do or say when things go wrong. If your voice gets tight or you start speaking quickly, your new team may not yet recognize that you are simply nervous and that everything will be okay. You may need to pay extra attention to your own reactions so you don’t stir the pot. 

4. Anticipate story-telling. Our brains are wired to make sense of the world. We want to have a story that explains events or ties data together in a way that makes sense to us. So, when people don’t know the facts, they make up a story — even if untrue. (“He’s out to get us. He changed our 2 p.m. weekly meeting to 9 a.m., because he wants to see who runs late.”) To build trust, any changes should include the true story. (“Our weekly report deadline has been changed to 1 p.m. Since we need time to compile that report and also break for lunch, we will meet at 9 a.m.”)

5. Assemble your advisors. Unilateral leadership never works. You can’t make changes effectively until people believe you understand how they’re doing business now, what’s working, and where the pain points are. That’s why you need a close group of advisors within your team who can work with you to advocate for change. Without such advisors you may create a situation where you have no followers.

Stay tuned, Paul, for more information in the next post about stories we tell ourselves. I think it will be helpful for you and others seeking to lead their people in positive directions.

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