LEADER’S FIELD GUIDE
Recently, I visited a home and met a new dog. During the formalities and introductions, I noticed the new dog had approached our boisterous group and took up residence between my feet. I could tell the dog was of significant weight and size and obviously very trusting of me. I immediately returned the trust. I knew the dog’s trust in me was well placed, but was mine in her? I reached down to pet her without asking for permission from the owner or seeking to understand her disposition. I was admiring her beautiful gray coat when I realized she was a pit bull!
Shocked at my discovery and my sudden awareness of every negative story I had ever heard or read about pit bulls, I was also surprised to find myself continuing to pet her soft fur as I gazed into her gentle eyes while also noting the visible scars of a more difficult, former life. In a matter of seconds, I had decided to trust her and verified the threat was minimal. The phrase trust, but verify came to mind. Trust, but verify is a Russian proverb (doveryai, no proveryai) Ronald Reagan learned while preparing for talks to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986.
The line worked brilliantly for Reagan’s purposes. The “trust” part suggested good faith toward the Russians; the “verify” part disarmed the president’s domestic critics, who worried that the administration would commit the United States to a deal the Russians had no intention of honoring. – Washington Post
As leaders we balance trust and verification in every interaction, request, and follow-up. The Harvard Business Review details Douglas McGregor’s definition of two perspectives a leader may have on employees and their trustworthiness:
- Theory X Leaders: assume employees seek to avoid responsibility. Theory X leaders believe employees “dislike work and must be coerced, controlled, and directed toward organizational goals.” Theory X leaders depend heavily on the verify part of the equation and may never seek to trust employees, first.
- Theory Y Leaders: on the opposite side of the continuum, assume employees are intrinsically interested in their work, that employees are not only self-directed, but also wish to be. Theory Y leaders give employees the responsibility they desire and expect to see creativity and problem-solving behaviors in return.
The benefit to trusting and verifying, is that trust is strengthened over time– potentially eliminating the need to verify at all. Spot checks can be perceived as general interest in a project’s outcome and not necessarily a lack of trust. Ultimately, trusting leaders prefer accountability and frequent communication from employees. Quick updates detailing an effort’s success are appreciated and details about a problem’s delayed resolution allows a leader to participate in the solution before doubt of one’s capability or commitment sets in.
I prefer to be a trusting leader and clearly, I am a trusting guest. The pit bull that was so docile surprised everyone (especially the new owners) by delivering a litter of puppies a week after my visit. Those puppies were born without the scars of a more difficult life. May we all be so lucky!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michelle Sugerman (PMP, PCC) is a speaker, author, and leadership coach with Leading Synergies. She founded Synergy Groups, virtual masterminds connecting Christians in leadership around the globe for the purpose of Community, Accountability, and Transformation. She also partners with high-performers and heirs-apparent especially in the STEM industries. Michelle’s formal background in technology, franchise, and project management gives her an edge on implementing best practices and scaling towards sustainable success. Michelle lives in Colorado where she hikes fourteeners and enjoys gourmet meals with her loving husband of 22 years.
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