By Steve Moran

The question is this: Which side do you bet on?

In my leadership book, “Lead Don’t Manage”, the first chapter is titled “When They Kick You In The Teeth”. It is the last chapter I wrote because just before finished writing I had an employee kick me in the teeth big time. This person got it in their head that I was going to fire them or that I was out to get them or something.

They lashed out saying terrible things about me, making up stories that were not true, and we parted company in a fashion that is still very painful for me today. I have spent a lot of time wondering how I could have made it different and have come to the conclusion that there was actually nothing I could have done to make it better.

I am not saying I was perfect in every respect because I am sure there were things I could have done better. But I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. What happened was mostly about what was going on inside this person’s head and I had zero control OR RESPONSIBILITY for that.

Trust Wager

Jim Collins, in his new book BE 2.0, tells the story of having a conversation with one of his professors in the Stanford Business School about some people who had abused his trust. He asked the professor if he ever had dealt with a similar trust issue.

The conversation went like this:

One day, I shared with Bill that some people whom I had trusted had abused that trust. I asked Bill if he had had that experience, and he said, ‘Of course, it’s a part of life.’ So I asked, have you become more distrustful of people as I feel like I’m becoming?

And he said, ‘Jim, you need to decide which wager you are going to make on trust. On one side, you start off assuming that people are trustworthy, and on the other, you don’t trust someone until they prove themselves.’ He was a believer in the former.

To Trust

If you trust, you will get burned from time to time. And when you get burned it will be really terrible and really painful, I promise.  

But . . . if you trust, you will get way more out of your organization and your teams. Your employees will absolutely love coming to work each day. They will help you improve your bottom line, reduce turnover, and improve your culture.

To Not Trust

Not trusting is safer for a leader. It means you mostly assume the worst about your team members. You assume they are lazy, they don’t care about the organization, and they don’t care about you. This means you also assume you are in a constant tug-a-war with them — fighting to get as much out of them while giving no more ground than you have to; and they feel the same.

Since you inherently distrust, you can never really be disappointed by them. However, you have set an expectation that they are not to be trusted and I promise they will live up to your expectation and behave in untrustworthy ways.

Day-to-day leading when you bet on the “don’t trust” side is much much harder. You have set up all kinds of narrow guardrails, and then most companies have guardrails to protect the outer guard rails. You have tons of policies and tons of rules, tons of micro accountability, and tons of meetings. Because you don’t trust them to do their job.

It is exhausting to write about it, I can hardly imagine what it is like to lead this way.

Here is my question for you: What side are you betting on?

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