One of my clients recently told me about a senior VP in his company who reversed a decision made by a manager four levels below him. The decision was to put a poor performing employee on a performance improvement plan. The manager in question was new to her role and had struggled mightily to come to what she believed was the best decision for everyone involved. She had the support of her manager and everyone else up her chain: director, senior director and VP.
Huh? What in the world was this senior leader of a Fortune 100 company doing second guessing a decision made by a first line manager? I don’t know what he was thinking. What I do know is that by doing what he did, he sent the message he doesn’t trust the people who work for him. He also probably undermined the self confidence of the young manager in the bargain.
We humans don’t like to be told we aren’t trusted. We get very testy about it. Our hackles go up – quite literally. We have a biological response similar to the fight or flight response. This also makes us very uncomfortable about directly telling someone “I don’t trust you”. Most people would rather have a root canal.
But this guy did it indirectly. I’m sure he didn’t intend to. The person who told me the story didn’t know why this senior VP did what he did. He undoubtedly had good reason for it in his mind, but he didn’t communicate his thinking or invite conversation about it. And I’m sure it never occurred to him he was telling his people “I don’t trust you”. But according to my source, that is exactly what they heard.
What exactly is the let me just fix that for you trap?
Let me explain. The busy leader sees something he or she would do differently, jumps in and does it. It may be a small as changing wording on a slide presentation the subordinate put together or as big as unilaterally revising a strategy the subordinate developed. But any time a leader does something that that is the responsibility of a subordinate – without that person’s request for help – he or she is saying “I don’t trust you”.
The work delegated to subordinates should be appropriate to their ability. Trust them to do it. Give them constructive feedback if they go off track. If they get it really wrong help them see why it’s wrong and how they can get it right next time. Make sure they know you expect them to ask when they need help, and you give them the help they ask for. This is all particularly important when you ask a subordinate to stretch to a new level.
Equally essential, if you realize you can’t trust someone, you do need to tell them directly. They deserve to know and have an opportunity to regain your trust. (For help with this kind of conversation get The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work.)
It is very unlikely disaster would have ensued if the manager in my client’s story was allowed to follow through with her decision. But it was completely predictable that the senior VP’s action would cause the damage it did. It was also completely avoidable.