Trusting the Competence of Others

You don’t generally select new employees on obedience, but on what they’re competent at (or potentially capable of doing) together with their ability to collaborate. In this post, I delve deeper into encouraging trust in others’ competence, or allowing people to get on with what they were hired for.

Command and control versus trust in another’s competence

The old paradigm of the leader as the uber-expert commanding subordinates, controlling them by checking whether they do as they’re told, really means a distrust in what a coworker can do. Distributed expertise means others bring in assets you do not possess yourself. As a leader, you should know what your team member is capable of. Rather than command and control, you should trust your coworker is good at what they have been hired for. Acknowledging their qualities helps fulfil their need for mastery and thereby job satisfaction. Telling someone off is clearly distrustful, and may even damage the coworker: all initiative is nipped in the bud.

Trust and autonomy

When you as leader see your task as the one who makes connections, provides a framework, and facilitates team endeavors, you open the way for team objectives to be met by those in the know: you trust each team member’s competence and leave them to get on with it. By expressing this trust and giving the team the responsibility, you respect each team member’s need for autonomy. Each team member in collaboration with the others sees to it that team objectives are met.

Use self-fulfilling prophecies to your benefit

An expectation often leads to a result in line with the expectation (known as a self-fulfilling prophecy). When you expect your team members to fail at what they do, you place them under extra pressure, which might just work counterproductively. Expressing your doubts about their ability communicates two things: you believe them to be incompetent, and you’re up-front disappointed in them. And since communication works both ways, it means you also get two things back: your coworker feels hurt and they won’t bother to try doing any more than the minimum. Why should they? After all, you’re already disappointed about the result, making it irrelevant if they succeed or fail at the task at hand. By expressing confidence in their ability, chances are your confidence will support theirs, making success the likely outcome. So, use self-fulfilling prophecies to your benefit by believing in your team member’s success.

It’s okay to ask for help

An extreme is to let your team member drown because you don’t help them to swim. Not only should you notice when a team member is struggling or over-extended, you need to provide support and ensure sufficient safety so that the team member knows it’s okay to ask for help when they’re under too much pressure. The need for connection is amplified under stress: oxytocin (the so-called cuddle hormone) is as much part of the stress response as adrenaline. Oxytocin not only stimulates connection with others, it is also the neurohormone that helps repair tissue damage incurred due to the stress response. So when your team member is struggling, you should help – even if that help is no more than moral support. Safety and connection helps your coworker develop stress resilience.

Dealing with setbacks

Setbacks happen. Rather than dwell on what went wrong (or even worse, who or what is to blame), stimulate the team to focus on what’s necessary to overcome the setback. Especially when the project is tough (and requires mastery and innovation), setbacks may be expected. Make it a moment of learning so that the setback becomes a step towards success.

How you approach your team members’ competence is exemplary and you should stimulate them to do as you do. Your trust plus team-wide trust in each other’s competence is a beautiful way to fulfil all coworkers’ need for autonomy, whilst at the same time acknowledging their mastery in what they’re good at. It makes for engaged and committed team members, which is good for team performance (and thereby good for the organization), and makes the organization interesting and challenging to work for. For the organization, this means retaining their best employees.

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