Why trust matters
Trust is something that we rarely think about and even less often talk about. But how about project managers, do we trust them? Do they trust each other, and what happens if they don’t? Kevin Parry explains.
Part of the excitement of working on a project or programme team under pressure to deliver is the sense of mission, of being part of something special which unites its members. It may be the sense that we are constructing the future and so are privy to knowledge that the public or even colleagues are not yet aware of, or it could be that only those in the team know what being in that position feels like. Either way, in healthy projects this sense of mutual dependency and shared goals unites the team and ensures that people will support one another. In unhealthy projects where trust is missing, the effect can be no less that corrosive.
In most life situations, we look for symbols of trustworthiness. These can be the logos of major corporations, such as banks or airlines or the badges of office for professionals like doctors with their certificates or qualifications on the plaque outside their surgeries. Trust in these cases is indirect. In the example I stated in the first part of this article, it is based on the pilot’s uniform and the airline’s brand that they train, test and continually assess people in such responsible positions. It would be ridiculous to ask to see the pilot’s log book or certificates before we board the aircraft and this principle even applies to tradesmen who arrive in a van with a logo for a certifying body. We trust those who keep us safe and ultimately this is often government who control standards and bodies who apply them.
In other cases, trust is direct in that it is based on personal qualities that we admire or respect. Direct trust is a one-to-one relationship and is internal and sub-conscious. Trust of this kind is fragile and may be built on many instances of the person demonstrating trustworthiness. The degree of trust then depends on how well we think that we know the other person. People whom we feel we know well are those whose reactions to a situation in which we could be at risk are, we think predictable.
I think that my cleaner wouldn’t steal from me even if she found cash at my apartment. I think she keeps the place hygienic and so safe from infections or disease. The more we feel we know the other person well and share certain values with them, such as honesty and diligence, the more we trust them. Even so, I would not trust my cleaner to conduct even a minor operation on me.
Whenever we delegate work or even ask for help, we are demonstrating trust in someone else to do what we need. But in a project or programme team, we are often presented with the need to quickly establish trust with people who were previously strangers. This is where membership of bodies such as the APM provides the indirect trust basis of shared values (the APM Code of Conduct) and professionalism (the guiding principle of the APM 5 dimensions).
Trust in project teams is like trust in orchestras, the cast of plays or other performing arts or even sports teams. We need to rely on the other person to do their part, to look out for things that could adversely affect the project and to help us when we need it without constantly checking or confirming their commitment. This trust is most effective when it combines indirect trust (qualified and professional people) with direct trust, based on observed behaviours.
We recognise expertise, professionalism and confidence as characteristics of people we trust in all fields. In the case of projects or programmes this enables strong teamwork through confidence that the project manager has a sound approach to delivering the project, has assessed the task and risks as well as being able to define, direct and deliver the work. Once team members, sponsors and stakeholders trust the team and the leader, then they will suspend disbelief and so achieve what can seem to be impossible and amazing things through projects. However, constant checking and verification takes time, energy and resources from the task at hand. In this way, lack of trust is like a brake on the project delivery and is corrosive to relationships.
The management overhead created by constant checking can overtake the energy for leadership and erode the time needed to consider the big picture. It affects not only what is found to be not as expected but also leads to suspicion about things that are otherwise acceptable. Team morale is affected adversely and people soon adopt a defensive posture. An executive I worked with in a large public sector organisation kept every email sent and received in case it was needed later to defend an action or prove innocence. It became automatic not to make a commitment and, where possible, even a decision in case it would be questioned later. This person subsequently suffered serious health problems which may have been related to the stress of her situation.
Trust, therefore, has two functions; it enables us to focus on things which we need to do while not worrying about our safety, security or health. This makes us more productive both by providing a distraction-free environment in which to work and by improving our general emotional and mental sense of well being. It also, enables us to rely on others and so to work effectively as a team member or team leader.
Trust enables extraordinary achievements by people. Imagine the trust demonstrated by the astronauts who take rockets into space based on the engineering, training and calculations of many others. In project teams it enables software development to be carried out 24 hours per day by passing work around the world (following the sun) by teams in different time zones to achieve previously unheard of levels of productivity and agility in responding to customer needs.
As we have seen, trust exists in two main forms: Indirect Trust is given to a brand, a concept or an institution. People in positions of authority granted by these organisations are automatically trusted and carry the symbols of expertise in the form of uniforms, badges or diplomas. In its other form, trust is direct in that we trust the person as an individual. In projects the leadership of the team by the project manager or programme manager is often based on direct trust, since professional status for these roles is still in its infancy. A critical competence of the effective project manager is therefore the ability to establish and maintain trust by his or her team, sponsor and stakeholders.
So how do effective leaders do this? I suggest it is in four important ways:
- They keep promises and commitments to the team and the stakeholders. In doing so they demonstrate integrity and reliability
- They display confidence in their role and in the task (project or programme). This involves knowing clearly what is to be achieved and having a vision of how it can be delivered
- They show respect for others in words and actions
- They provide leadership to the team in a convincing way. Using a clearly thought through methodology and allocating work according to the competence of team members is an example of this.
Within the team trust is based on shared values and demonstrated reliability. The more instances there are of people meeting commitments, displaying loyalty to the team and supporting others, the greater the level of trust established. Of course, the inverse is also true but with a twist. Trust is given tentatively at first and then progressively with more interaction. It is like making a structure out of layers, each layer representing another instance of demonstrated trustworthiness, the whole becoming more solid and substantial over time.
This trust can be quickly eroded, however. Trust is based on our image or impression of others. Since we can never know what they think, we form an impression and it is the impression that we trust. If this impression is undermined, for example, by that person being dishonest, unreliable or threatening, then we quickly withdraw our trust and rely less and less on the individual concerned. The loss of trust is much faster than the speed of gaining trust – especially direct trust. However, when we think back to the queues outside Northern Rock when rumours spread that they were in financial difficulties, it is clear that indirect trust can be quickly lost too.
In some cases project managers and programme managers need to ask exception or difficult things of their teams. This might be working longer hours or outside the normal working week. It might be giving bad news to others or doing work outside of their comfort zone. Their willingness to do this and to support each other depends on trust. It should not be taken lightly and people leading such teams need to make sure that their deposits of trustworthiness are substantial enough to stand the test.
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