Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

The theme I have heard most from managers this year is the difficulty of building trust with staff during a period of uncertainty. Subordinates crave certainty – or seem to – but managers can’t deliver when the future is murky and everything can change so quickly. They fear that it erodes trust, since managers look less than honest, holding things back. Of course, if they had built more trust in the past, the situation today might be less awkward.

Trust is abstract and how to build it can seem confusing, even bewildering. Too often we assume trust flows from competence, says Jordan Berman, a vice-president at the Canadian pharmaceutical company Apotex and author of the recent book The Trust Trifecta. If you can get stuff done, supposedly people will trust you. But he says that focus on the “what” of managerial life – goals and achievements – ignores the equally important “how,” the manner in which we accomplish our objectives.

On that score, he says people trust you when they feel they “know” you; feel you’re being straight with them; and when you talk and behave in a consistent manner. That leads to the three elements of his trust trifecta: communicating consistently, transparently, and authentically.

Story continues below advertisement

In horse racing, a trifecta requires picking which horses will place first, second and third. For managers seeking trust, the trifecta also requires getting the order straight: Authenticity places first, transparency a close second, and consistency third.

In today’s environment, consistency is the most challenging, so it’s comforting to view it in third place. Some managers have tried to compensate by falling back on the second “horse” in this race, transparency – being open about what they know and don’t. But at times, when jobs might have to be cut or the company’s existence might well be threatened, transparency disappears. Doors are shut for secret meetings and vagueness or silence rules.

Authenticity seems less threatened by the pandemic’s complications to managerial lives. But interestingly, Mr. Berman over the years has found authenticity is where leaders struggle the most. They are afraid to let their guard down and be who they are naturally because it seems to violate the executive code. He doesn’t suggest you become an open book and bare your soul routinely to colleagues. But he does urge you to convey the same compassion, sincerity and honesty when you speak in a professional setting as in conversations with close friends.

If pandemic uncertainty has been plaguing you, here’s a positive way to reframe that nemesis. Leadership coach Dan Rockwell says it brings seven advantages:

  1. Develops character: We gain from roadblocks and adversity. Uncertainty is an opportunity to find your aspirational self, Mr. Rockwell suggests.
  2. Sifts priorities: Uncertainty exposes what really matters.
  3. Provides rich context for gratitude to others: Gratitude involves noticing and acknowledging benefits or advantages others provide. We’re more likely to notice in uncertain times, as we’re more alert. “Gratitude matters most when it’s uncomfortable,” he says.
  4. Disrupts assumptions: And when assumptions dissolve, thinking can begin. New pathways open up.
  5. Presents opportunities for humility: “Certainty invites arrogance and arrogance makes us intolerable,” he says. “Humility opens hearts and minds.”
  6. Provides a reality check: Uncertainty illuminates illusions. It shows us the way things truly are.
  7. Creates intense focus on the next step: He recalls walking on a rocky riverbed in a U.S. state park this summer, having to be very careful about each step. It forced him to put the final destination aside and focus on each successive step.

Those are real advantages but, of course, uncertainty can be deeply frustrating. Managers have felt out of control, hostage to a virus and governments’ response to that virus. Managers feel a responsibility to pierce that uncertainty and provide a clear message to staff, but can’t.

In many cases, they are exaggerating their own responsibility for clarity beyond what subordinates expect in this unprecedented situation. As with Mr. Rockwell taking those ginger steps along the rocky riverbed, subordinates probably only want clarity on the next step – and if not exactly how to make that step, what the possibilities are.

Michelle Buck, a clinical professor of leadership at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, suggests you give particular attention at this time to reflection, considering what drives you and the organization. “If everything around us that has been familiar in terms of the status quo is falling apart, we need something to hold onto,” she told a university webinar. “Our values and purpose can give us consistency.”

Story continues below advertisement

She also urges you to get out of black-and-white thinking with its either-or underpinnings and embrace a more holistic “both/and” framework. Think creatively, combining possibilities rather than going overboard on one solution. In uncertain times, that gives you a more balanced way forward. “Resist the temptation to think that there’s only one solution to any challenge we face,” she says.

This has been a year of unusual uncertainty for managers. That will probably continue well into 2021. Build trust through the trifecta formula, accept you can’t make the uncertainty magically go away, and recognize with it comes some advantages in character building and devising next steps.

Cannonballs

  • What are the three biggest gains from 2020 in your career – growth or other improvements? Give it some thought.
  • Consultant Art Petty recently was haunted by the thought of being visited by the ghosts of conversations unspoken – past, present and future. It was not pleasant, nor is missing out on those opportunities to set things right through honest, if difficult, conversations.
  • Productivity blogger Scott Young follows the 10 per cent rule: You should spend roughly 10 per cent of the time on a project in its planning.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies