Relationships based on trust are vital in business. When you have the trust of your team you see morale lift and motivation soar, and without it things can easily become chaotic. How do you build trust as a leader and how can that help to encourage positive change in your organisation?
- Product leaders need trust if they want to make changes.
- Product leaders need to build trust with their team, their stakeholders and their peers.
- You must trust your team and they must trust you if everyone is to do their best work.
- Trust goes hand-in-hand with authenticity and transparency.
- Apply product thinking to operate with trust: arm yourself with facts, demonstrate trust through your behaviour and show it in your emotions.
- Overshare and be decisive.
- Don’t micromanage and dictate.
- Remember you don’t need to have all the answers.
Why is building trust so important?
In a nutshell, a relationship based on trust will help you to get things done. As Emily points out, product management is often at the centre of struggles in a company, with product leaders the ones who say no and who tell people that they can’t build what they want. “If we haven’t built trust going into those difficult conversations, then people won’t believe the reason why we say no, or why we say something else is really important,” says Emily.
There are three categories of people you need to build trust with as a product leader:
- Your team
- Leadership peers
As Emily says, product leaders have to work across many functions, talk to peers in the executive suite, bridge the gap between development and business and marketing, and so on. “We need to talk about company decisions and convey the strategy and vision. The trust that people have in us, is key to making sure that we can accomplish the things that we need to.”
How do you start building trust?
Trust should run both ways, your team must trust you, and you must trust your team. Donna says this lack of trust in their team can be a big problem for product leaders. In Donna’s experience it usually results from an insecurity about the team’s ability rather than any insecurity the leader has about their ability to lead. We’ve all seen it in action — the leader micromanages, meddles and dictates. “Usually, it’s because they don’t trust other people,” Donna says. “But it impedes performance, and it doesn’t allow people to do their best work.”
As a leader, you should recognise you have a trust problem when you feel you have an influence problem, says Donna. If leaders feel that they’re not being listened to, then it’s usually because they’re telling people what to do, she’s found. “Often the root of that for product leaders is that they don’t trust others to do great work, and they’re having a hard time letting go of the details. Ultimately, the product leader’s job is to enable others to do the work rather than dictate to people.”
Trust comes from authenticity, says Amanda: “People will believe you if they know where you’re coming from, or at least if they don’t agree, they’ll have the broader context to try to understand your view.” You need to bring vulnerability to your behaviour as well, she adds, and acknowledge areas where you might be uncertain or not know the answers, and areas where you need help. She says: “I think this is hard, particularly when you’re a younger product manager, because you feel you have to know all the answers – at least I remember I had a hard time with this.”
Transparency goes hand in hand with trust. Of course there are times when it’s impossible to be transparent – sensitive personnel issues, board-level conversations about the future of the company, potential acquisitions, mergers, and so on — but otherwise, as Amanda comments, “when in doubt, be transparent”.
When in doubt, be transparentAmanda Richardson, CEO, Coderpad
Transparency should operate on three levels, says Donna. It should have facts, you should demonstrate it in your behaviour, and show in your emotion. “The facts can be numbers or metrics or goals. The behaviour aspect might just be when ‘you did this, this happened’. And I think, for people in tech, the hardest part about being transparent is having emotion, because that’s ultimately how you connect with people.” It means, she says, having just enough vulnerability and just enough candour.
Oversharing is also recommended, and remember that it takes time to build trust. Says Emily: “I try to be as transparent as I can. I try to let people know my thought process, I talk about the conversations I’ve had. I don’t wait until things are finished to give people updates, regardless of whether they’re above me or below me. I want people to have insight into what’s going on. There are many people who say they’re transparent, but who are definitely not. You can’t just say it and have people believe it.”
Decision making and being decisive is also an important factor in trust. Amanda says you shouldn’t continually gather information and never make a decision. Equally don’t make a decision and change your mind a day later. “You will lose trust if you do this,” she says.
Celebrating across the team is also important. “Celebrate team success early,” says Amanda, “so everybody wins. The team wants to hear that you’re building momentum for them.”
What about trust and change?
You have to have trust if you want change. And as Emily points out, change is inevitable, but without trust change becomes scary and teams become paralysed. They’re unable to operate and navigate the change. ”When you have trust and transparency the team knows they’re not kept in the dark on things that matter,” she says.
A different approach is needed when you’re new to a role and trying to effect change. People will mistrust you if you immediately start a role by making changes. Donna says: “As a leader, you feel like you’re supposed to have the solution, when sometimes the best solution is to have the best questions. The good news is that product leaders are excellent at asking questions.”
She recommends product leaders apply product thinking in order to build trust and get the best work done.
CoderPad is working on an acquisition, so Amanda is currently living through the reality of building trust and managing change. The companies have similar cultures, but, as with any acquisition, she’s having to manage expectations and insecurities and a lot of change. “People see facts without context and make up stories — on both sides,” she says. It means she’s currently spending lots of time at the new company, meeting people face-to-face, establishing rapports, and building trust.
Explore more content
Building trust is a critical part of a product leader’s remit, so Mind the Product has plenty of other resources to help you think through how to achieve it. Explore more content with a focus on building trust or search more topics in our Content A-Z.