We all know people who have influence but whom we do not trust; these individuals are often referred to as “political animals” or “jungle fighters.” While these individuals are often very successful in the short run, the prevalent sense of mistrust prohibits long-term efficacy and hinders them from building trust.
Successful project managers not only need to be influential, they also need to exercise influence in a manner that is building trust and sustains the trust of others.
Building Trust One Step at a Time
The significance of trust can be discerned by its absence. Imagine how different a working relationship is when you distrust the other party as opposed to trusting them. When people distrust each other, they often spend inordinate amounts of time and energy attempting to discern hidden agendas and the true meaning of communications and then securing guarantees to promises. They are much more cautious with each other and hesitant to cooperate. Here is what one line manager had to say about how he reacted to a project manager he did not trust:
Whenever Jim approached me about something, I found myself trying to read between the lines to figure what was really going on. When he made a request, my initial reaction was “no” until he proved it.
Conversely, trust is the “lubricant” that maintains smooth and efficient interactions. When you trust, people are more likely to take your actions and intentions at face value when circumstances are ambiguous.
For example, here is what a functional manager had to say about how he dealt with a project manager he trusted: If Sally said she needed something, no questions were asked. I knew it was important or she wouldn’t have asked.
Building Trust is an elusive concept. It is hard to nail down in precise terms why some project managers are trusted and others are not. One popular way to understand trust is to see it as a function of character and competence. Character focuses on personal motives (i.e., does he or she want to do the right thing?), while competence focuses on skills necessary to realize motives (i.e., does he or she know the right things to do?).
Building Trust, What Others Have to Say
Stephen Covey resurrected the significance of character in leadership literature in his best-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey criticized popular management literature as focusing too much on shallow human relations skills and manipulative techniques, which he labeled the personality ethic. He argues that at the core of highly effective people is a character ethic that is deeply rooted in personal values and principles such as dignity, service, fairness, the pursuit of truth, and respect. This, he believes, will allow the project manager to start building trust.
One of the distinguishing traits of character is consistency. When people are guided by a core set of principles, they are naturally more predictable because their actions are consistent with these principles.
Another feature of character is openness. When people have a clear sense of who they are and what they value’ they are more receptive to others. This trait provides them with the capacity to empathize and the talent to build consensus among divergent people.
Finally, another quality of character is a sense of purpose. Managers with character are driven not only by personal ambitions but also for the common good. Their primary concern is what is best for their organization and the project, not what is best for themselves. This willingness to subordinate personal interests to a higher purpose garners the respect, loyalty, and trust of others.
The significance of character is summarized by the comments made by two team members about two very different project managers.
At first everyone liked Joe and was excited about the project. But after a while, people became suspicious of his motives. He had a tendency to say different things to different people. People began to feel manipulated.
He spent too much time with top management. People began to believe that he was only looking out for himself. It was HIS project. When the project began to slip he jumped ship and left someone else holding the bag. I’ll never work for that guy again.
My first impression of Jack was nothing special. He had a quiet, unassuming management style. Over time I learned to respect his judgment and his ability to get people to work together. When you went to him with a problem or a request, he always listened carefully.
If he couldn’t do what you wanted him to do, he would take the time to explain why. When disagreements arose he always thought of what was best for the project. He treated everyone by the same rules; no one got special treatment. I’d jump at the opportunity to work on a project with him again.
These two examples show a totally different take on building trust. The first project manager has been shown a high level of trust from the outset but he has failed in building trust thus reaching a ‘persona non grata’ status very quickly. Meanwhile the second example shows a project manager with integrity and good judgement that has been building trust between him and the team one step at a time.
Building Trust: Competences
Character alone will not engender building trust. We must also have confidence in the competency of individuals before we really trust them. We all know well-intended managers whom we like but do not trust because they have a history of coming up short on their promises. Although we may befriend these managers, we don’t like to work with or for them.
Competence is reflected at a number of different levels:
- First, there is knowledge and skills reflected in the ability to answer questions, solve technical problems and excel in certain kinds of work.
- Second, there is competence at an interpersonal level demonstrated in being able to listen effectively, communicate clearly, resolve arguments, provide encouragement, and so forth.
- Finally, there is organizational competence. This includes being able to run effective meetings, set objectives, reduce inefficiencies, and build a social network. Young engineers and other professionals tend to place too much value on task or technical competence. They underestimate the significance of organizational skills.
Veteran professionals, on the other hand, recognize the importance of management and place a greater value on organizational and interpersonal skills.
Building trust as a new project manager, one problem you might experience is that it takes time to establish a sense of character and competency. Character and competency are often demonstrated when they are tested, such as when a tough call has to be made or when difficult problems have to be solved.
When it comes to building trust veteran project managers have the advantage of reputation and an established track record of success. Although endorsements from credible sponsors can help a young project manager create a favorable first impression, ultimately he or she will have to demonstrate character and competence during the course of dealings with others in order to gain their trust.
So far this I have addressed the importance of building a network of relationships to complete the project based on trust and reciprocity. I have also touched on the nature of project management and the personal qualities needed to excel at it.