Enabling Others to Act Requires Trust

May 26, 2020

During the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves, I am reminded of the importance of leadership. In particular—on a very personal level—I am reminded of the critical need for trust when things become unpredictable, uncertain, and, as is the case in all-too-many situations today, life-threatening.
My daughter is an infectious disease specialist. Let’s just say she has been putting in plenty of hours these days in that hair-on-fire environment called “the hospital.” As you’ve no doubt heard, there is indeed a lot of craziness in trying to provide great care to those affected by COVID-19. During one of our recent calls, she commented about something very frustrating—and fatiguing—that she was facing. Surprisingly, the frustration was not from the lack of proven treatments or a shortage of necessary supplies. That comes with the territory. Her main frustration was from our old friend—a lack of leadership. Let me explain.
It seems the director of her department had been working full-time at a sister hospital. Nevertheless, he still wanted to be involved in nearly every decision—at both hospitals at the same time. My daughter went on to explain that she and her colleagues were dealing with a huge number of fast-moving parts requiring immediate decisions, which they were all very capable of making. But per his instructions, almost everything had to be run by him. And remember, it was not like he was just sitting around with time to focus on those decisions.
Yes, even in a crisis-state, there are some people in leadership positions whose lack of faith and trust in their people are drastically slowing down productivity and creating unnecessary friction and frustration. Is it possible that your people might say you are somewhat like this director?
Although I have not met this particular healthcare leader, I would offer these thoughts as some potential rationale for his demands:

  • He likely felt very accountable for all the work of his staff in both hospitals. Because COVID-19 is truly a life-and-death situation for some, he likely wanted to minimize the chances for non-recoverable mistakes.

  • He may also have felt that there were many dilemmas being encountered for which there was no set of approved standardized procedures. So, he wanted to add value and keep people safe.

  • And like most of us, he may have had a little touch of “control freak” in him to boot. 

As admirable and as real as all of those explanations may be, they do not make up for lack of trust. Trust does not mean removing yourself and assuming your people can effectively solve every single problem they face. But it does mean letting them do the work they are capable of doing and making it safe—and expected—to reach out when they need help. In a triage situation like the kind many hospitals currently find themselves in, it is impossible for every decision to be run up the line to HQ. Decisions must be made in the moment, in the field, by those closest to the challenge.
During a crisis, leaders have to trust. Therefore, it is imperative that trust is built during those more normal times. You can never let up on your efforts to continue to build and solidify it.
There are always both direct and indirect consequences resulting from a breakdown in trust. During a crisis, these consequences become more pronounced and appear more quickly. They also have an immediate impact. Therefore, when everything else in the world is spinning wildly out of control, trust may be the only sure thing you have.
Take care of yourself and all those good people in your personal and work lives. And never stop working on that thing called trust. It matters.
Steve Coats, Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge®, is managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For over 25 years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers around the world in leadership development, team development, personal growth, change, and business strategy. You can reach Steve at [email protected].  

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