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In need of a good old pub moan? Try building trust at work instead

Photo by  Nathz Guardia  on  Unsplash

We’ve all been there. After months of preparation, management has thrown a spanner in the works and your big digital project is about to be turned upside down. You’re letting off steam to a colleague, who is intravenously administering a pint in a dark corner of the nearest pub. Is this a familiar scene?

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, the classic pub moan can be a great way to get through an especially hard week. It’s healthy to vent; it helps you remember that you’re not incompetent and that you’re not alone. But I’ve been working in digital for almost 20 years now, and the same frustrations at a so-called hippo (highest paid person’s opinion) come up again and again. If management still doesn’t get it, maybe we need some new tactics.

Tuning in

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The saying goes: "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Kolb’s learning circle (pictured on the right right) is a really good way of showing how we can learn from our experiences. And it works both for the learning that always takes us to the same place as well as learning that takes us somewhere new.

Note the second step – reflection. How often do we reflect on our real role in a difficult situation? How often do we ask ourselves: “what could I have done differently?”

An article on CharityComms, How to deal with a comms hippo, and the accompanying comment from Jess Day brings the tension between these two perspectives to life. Jess writes in response to the article: “I think it's worth acknowledging that 'micromanager who has to control every aspect of a project' can sometimes be better understood as person who has seen an awful lot of projects launched with trumpets and fanfares run into the sand long after all the people who championed them had taken their careers elsewhere.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in meetings where there is a senior manager and a digital lead who, despite the fact that they are nodding their heads and saying “I agree”, are clearly not truly understanding each other.

In situations like this, everyone just gets on with what they want to do, without negotiating. But when there is a last-minute decision to be made, hierarchy prevails because there’s no longer time for the softly, softly approach!  

Changing this pattern requires tuning into each others’ needs. On that point, Jess asks this important question:

“How do we support and build trust to help 'hippos' bring all the useful things (authority, budget, organisational buy in, perhaps even some wisdom) without their feeling the need to interfere in details because they don't feel confident enough about everything else?”

Let’s take a look at this in detail.

Who do you trust?

The key word in Jess’s last comment is trust. Often digital people default to emphasising their technical skills when put in a tight spot. But your expertise is not going to build trust. The way you do that is by listening intently to your manager’s concerns and understanding where they are coming from so that you’re familiar with their needs.

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At the Digital Leadership Forum one year, someone showed me a really interesting graph about this (pictured on the right).

It’s not about sucking up, it’s about recognising people’s seniority when it comes to the crunch, and remembering that managers have a lot of competing priorities. Ultimately, you’ll have more influence if you’ve gained someone’s trust.

On a practical level, if you find you’re getting wound up at a project meeting, try reflecting on what is triggering the feeling. What are your options to address that? For example, if you have a tendency to become angry if you don’t feel heard, as soon as you have that feeling, stop yourself, take a deep breath and take another look at the situation. What can you do differently to try and get a different result? This gets easier with practice. Sometimes just becoming more aware of your feelings and thoughts can help.

Reflecting and being aware of our reactions takes a lot of energy so it’s useful to know what you have control over and what you don’t when you experience frustration at work.

Leaders always eat last

If you’re a manager reading this, I’ve got some things that might help you too. I’ve written elsewhere about the value of coaching your team instead of directing them. Today, I want to look at developing trust on your side of the bargain.

Simon Sinek, whose fantastic talks can be watched over a lunch break, focuses on the concept of the “circle of safety”. Above everything else, a good leader makes their employees feel safe. Sinek takes the example of military leaders waiting at the back of the dinner queue – eating last – to illustrate this point. When people’s lives are at stake, a good leader makes sure their team is well looked after.

The results are worth it. “When the Circle is strong and that feeling of belonging is ubiquitous” writes Sinek, “collaboration, trust and innovation result.” If it’s absent, “paranoia, cynicism and self-interest prevail”. Try to show your team they are safe and trusted at work wherever you can. Help them feel ownership of your decisions. In practical terms, this could mean letting your team members make mistakes and helping them learn from those, coaching team members to make decisions, not just issuing directions and, most importantly, feeling OK about giving a voice in the hierarchy to your specialists rather that speaking for them.

There is absolutely no way that any manger will know everything about what people in their team do, so developing trusting relationships with your experts is essential.

Whose round is it?

Pub moans are part of life and are undoubtedly needed. But sometimes they just sap your energy and you come back tomorrow to the same situation and same feeling of anger or disillusionment. I invite you to reflect on this article and design your own (different) tactics for the same situations. You may even get a different result!

If you’ve had similar experiences and have stories or tips to share, please tweet me or send me an email.