Continuous Trust: The Real Answer to Leading Amidst a Crisis

April 23, 2020

An actionable guide to navigating Control and Empowerment with Trust.

If you’re browsing LinkedIn or searching for anything related to leadership, the odds are, you’re seeing a lot of the same: just “empower your teams,” and we’ll make it through today’s COVID-19 induced crisis. On the surface, this seems like sound advice. Who doesn’t prefer empowerment over control?

For all the warm and fuzzy feelings the word “empowerment” engenders, the prevailing advice to toss control aside in favor of empowerment is flawed. It assumes that leaders must choose to either control or empower. This is a false choice and too simplistic. The world is rarely black and white, especially when complex humans are involved. And the complexity is exacerbated in crisis situations like we’re in now. 

Control and empowerment seem like opposites but are in fact interdependent poles. Just as inhaling and exhaling must co-exist if we want to live, control and empowerment must also co-exist, and be managed as a polarity, if we want our organizations to be successful in the long-term. Navigating polarities is a critical leadership skill in today’s complex and uncertain world. 

Leaders don’t have to choose. Our jobs are to seek the benefits of both control and empowerment while limiting the overuses of the two poles (see Figure 1 for an example of the Control and Empowerment polarity). 

Control and Empowerment polarity example from SIngleStone, leading through COVID-19
Figure 1: Control and Empowerment Polarity (Polarity Navigator template courtesy of Andiron)

Thriving organizations intentionally combine control and empowerment to fit their specific contexts. Even Spotify, often lauded for their empowering operating model, embraces control and empowerment through “loosely coupled, tightly aligned” squads.    

How does a leader navigate the polarity of control and empowerment? How does a leader create an environment for people to feel empowered?

The answer is one word – trust

Trust is the currency of relationships. COVID-19 reminds us how important relationships are for our well-being. Instead of choosing the simplicity of control or empowerment, leaders should focus on earning trust in every interaction, with their teams and with their customers. 

There are many definitions of trust, but the one I like most is Rachel Botsman’s: 

“Trust is a confident relationship to the unknown.”

Rachel Botsman

Botsman also shares that trust doesn’t happen in one giant gesture. Trust is earned continuously through consistent behaviors, especially as context continues to change. 

More specifically, it’s important for leaders to demonstrate consistent behaviors across four dimensions of trust – sincerity, reliability, competence, and care (see Figure 2: The Four Dimensions of Trust). 

Thin Book of Trust SingleStone's guidance on building trust amid COVID-19
Figure 2: The Four Dimensions of Trust (source: The Thin Book of Trust by Charles Feltman)

Over the last couple of years as the CEO of SingleStone, I’ve had my share of highs and lows as it relates to trust and navigating control and empowerment. These lessons have shaped me into the leader I am today and inspire me to be a better leader in the future. Hopefully, a few of these experiences help in your journey to continuously earn trust as a leader. 

Trust Gaps: Deficits

In my first quarter as CEO, SingleStone experienced significant client losses that required us to reduce the size of our team. Saying goodbye to long-time colleagues and friends is never easy, but when it was my first public decision as our leader, it was even harder. I took it seriously and fell back on what I knew. I worked with our senior team to pour over data, assess options, and monitor the indicators for a series of weeks. We ultimately decided it was time to make the call. I stood in front of the whole firm to share the news with full transparency. I can still feel the massive punch in the gut as I stood in front of my team. There were visceral looks of disgust and I could see the disappointment, and in some cases anger, across the team. 

The team that I care so deeply for was shocked. They were upset. And not because of the decision, which many understood, but because it was a surprise. There was no communication during those weeks that even hinted at this outcome. Despite the best of intentions, a history of reliability, competence, and sincerity, I started my relationship with our team in a trust deficit that rivals the size of our federal budget deficit today. 

Actionable Insight

Withholding information in the spirit of protecting the team devalues the team and is a form of controlling behavior. Demonstrating care for the team by engaging with them openly and honestly, especially when things are hard, is a lesson that continues to serve us well today. 

Trust Gaps: Shared Context

The second trust gap occurred between a colleague and me and is the reason I was inspired to more deeply re-explore the topic of trust. There was a long history of mutual trust and respect. And then it fell apart. This is a story about missed shared expectations leading to a breach of trust. We were aligned at the highest level on what we wanted to achieve together and had at least weekly interactions. As time passed, the business needs shifted, and our expectations of each other drifted. It was evident to me what structural changes our firm needed for us to achieve our objectives, but we had drastically different views on how best to execute because we weren’t working from the same context. Things were moving fast. We needed to make decisions, and ultimately, I did. 

He did not agree with me and the next couple of weeks were challenging as we explored how we landed so far apart. We shared our respective logic, we discussed how we might have landed differently, and most importantly, we explored trust together with this helpful Adam Grant podcast with Esther Perel as the backdrop. There were no lies. There were no bad intentions. There was plenty of communication. But there was not shared context, which is a critical competence for leaders. That was my flaw in all of this. We missed on continuously re-aligning as context shifted, as it always does. We’ve recommitted to earning each other’s trust and I’m confident these learnings will serve both of us well, not just with each other but also for all future relationships. 

Actionable Insight

Trust, like all things worthwhile, requires constant work. Botsman’s “trust is a confident relationship with the unknown” is especially important to remember here as context changes, more unknowns naturally exist. Leaders need to consistently create a shared context with clear communications and aligned behaviors to build the bridge across the unknown.           

Trust Bridges: Connecting, Intentionally

We’re in week six of fully working from home. We’re doing many of the typical things (dedicated Slack channel, weekly video conference calls, informative emails, leadership 1:1s, etc.). These are all important forms of communications, but many times we see organizations doing all the right things but falling into the trap of transparency theatre—transparency without real depth or feeling. Earning trust as a leader requires more. In crisis situations, our team needs to see that work is continuing, that their leaders are not just connected but have the competence to guide us forward with deep empathy. 

The control and empowerment polarity is strong. That’s why we started hosting opt-in weekly virtual demos for project teams to show off their work and share the impact they’re having with our clients and our business. Orienting the team around our core work directly connects us to the progress we can make every day amidst all the unknowns in the world. In our weekly firmwide video conference calls, we don’t just gloss over the information to get to happy hour, we choose to dig in on the tough, top of mind questions (see an example in the next Trust Bridge) that come directly from the team. It was uncomfortable when I started doing open Q&As with the team two years ago because I couldn’t prepare responses. That discomfort is just as present today. But showing up every day, engaging with our team as authentically as possible, is all I, and really all leaders, can do. The end result is one team, informed and working as tightly as ever, even though we’re physically separated.  

Actionable Insight

Sow seeds of connection. It’s more than communication, you need to be personal and business-forward. Involving everyone in projects creates a culture of “better together.” 

Trust Bridges: Kill Transparency Theater

Another example from the last six weeks relates to some potentially tough decisions we might need to make as the economic uncertainty persists. As a small business, despite the durability we’ve started to build in our business, we inherently feel shifts in the economy and our clients’ businesses more than a larger company. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is. We’re feeling the impact of uncertainty and we’ve started to engage our team in our decision-making process. As part of one of our weekly business update video calls, we laid out the guiding principles for how we would take expense actions if this became necessary. We shared the multi-step approach and outlined the key actions that would occur. Balancing the appropriate level of transparency is an art, not science. 

Over- transparency may lead to fear and doubt. Under-transparency may lead to the appearance of withholding information. In this particular sensitive situation, we provided the level of detail that enabled our team to understand the potential steps we’ll take. If we begin acting on a downside scenario, a key part of our approach is to directly engage our team in problem solving and to get their input on our options, should we need to reduce expenses. We’ll have a lot more information to share at that time. This enables them to be a part of the solution and reinforces that we’re all in this together. Our team appreciates that, and my gut does too.  

Actionable Insight

Be intentionally transparent and involve your team in the decision-making process, so they can help drive actions towards a shared outcome. That’s true empowerment. 

The next time you hear a pundit telling you to choose empowerment over control, you can translate that to something much more actionable – continuously earn trust through the consistency of your behaviors. 

We live in a complicated world. The pace of change is increasing with each day that passes. The constant in all of this change is us. We are all humans and what makes us special are the things we can create together through our relationships and interactions. Trust is the currency of relationships. Continuously earning trust as a leader is always important, but especially so in these most challenging times. 

What are you doing to earn trust?

Jimmy Chou

Chief Executive Officer
Jimmy Chou has over 20 years of experience across multiple industries, with a particular focus in financial services and insurance. As SingleStone’s CEO, Jimmy has been instrumental in leading the firm through transformational change since he stepped into the role in 2017. Under his leadership, the firm established a refreshed vision and strategy that has resulted in clearly defined service offerings, the expansion of the firm’s geographic footprint, and most importantly, significantly improved customer and business results for SingleStone's clients. Throughout his consulting career, he’s worked tirelessly to earn the trust and respect of his clients, many of whom seek him as a trusted advisor, partner, and confidant. Equally as important to Jimmy are the relationships he’s built across his own team. He’s enthusiastic about growing and developing the next generation of leaders for SingleStone. An advocate and community partner, Jimmy supports several philanthropic organizations, and serves on the board of the YMCA of Greater Richmond and Storefront for Community Design. He was recognized with the 2020 Male Ally award on behalf of Richmond Technology Council’s MLM Awards. Jimmy regularly acts as a mentor and guest speaker for Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond, providing counsel, advice, and encouragement to the next generation of leaders. He also supports and contributes to Girls Who Code, an organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology. Jimmy is a graduate of Wake Forest University and CFA Charterholder.