I often work with leaders who have a team or several teams of developers and want to trust them but wind up surprised and frustrated when news breaks. This incongruence feels a little hopeless because, on the one hand, they trust the team to take care of things, but then things still go wrong. What do you do about knowing the details and trusting the team?
Know the Details
I often think that many leaders need to know a few more details about what is going on with their team. I’ve had some clients whose leaders don’t even know how many people they have reporting to them. I’ve had others who knew how many minutes their reports were gone for lunch. Let’s consider those extremes.
The main thing about knowing the details is to know the right information that helps a busy leader know over time if something is changing. So here are a few details I recommend leaders know at any point:
- Current projection for delivery dates
- Risks and impediments as initially reported
- Current operational and organizational metrics
- Dependencies across their groups
This might seem like a lot, but many organizations put managers and leaders in meetings to manage these issues without their teams’ support, so they need to know them. Many surprises that frustrate leaders are also explained by these few bits of information.
When I advocate leaders know the details, I stop at knowing them. I don’t ask that they intervene or make any decisions about them. That is something the team needs to have a voice in. Managers need to know those details to see patterns, trends and work well in their chain of meetings.
Trust the Team
Sounds great, right? Well, there is always a downside or an unhealthy version of this. Some managers believe they should trust the team, which means they don’t need to know anything. Some take it even further and avoid knowing things to prove how much they trust their teams.
For leaders who find themselves thinking along those lines, here’s a question.
If I asked your teams about you as a leader and trusted you, what would they say?
Almost every time I’ve met a leader like this, the teams have little respect for their manager and don’t consider them a leader. The team usually recognizes they have to take care of themselves because their manager can’t be bothered, or it would take too long to tell them what is going on.
Trust is an incredible catalyst for great groups, but it doesn’t work one-way.
So what do you want the teams to trust you with? Are you acting in a way to earn that trust? What do you trust the teams to handle without your help? What specific things do you still need to intervene on?
Don’t skip that last question. It says a lot about you, your group, and company policies. For example, don’t be a manager who trusts the team to work out harassment issues.
I’ve had the privilege of working with a few leaders who strike a nice balance between these two ideas. They invested themselves in knowing critical details about what was going on and learned what was needed. They heard what the team was going to do and validated their approach. They represented the information they received accurately. They didn’t sugar-coat or obfuscate. They brought difficult news as it happened instead of hiding it.
The teams I talked to with those leaders grew the fastest. They saw how hard the manager’s job was and gave them grace as they worked toward mutual success. There was trust between both sides. They could talk about failures honestly. It wasn’t easy, but people left those conversations knowing it needed to happen and respected each other for doing it.
If you’re a leader, these two ideas can feel like they’re on opposite ends of a spectrum, but they aren’t really. They represent two qualities of a great leader. Knowing the details that define success and failure and creating two-way trust expand possibilities, accelerate growth, and remove risk early.