“How do I know when I can trust a Rebel at Work?”
We often get asked this question. A manager or team leader hears Lois or I present, agrees with our message that the people who work for him often have solutions for the team’s problems or can identify new opportunities, but double clutches at the point of empowerment. Can I trust her?
In this instance, the manager is using the word trust to mean: Can I rely upon her to execute successfully? Can I be completely confident? Admittedly that is one of the dictionary meanings of the word. But there’s another sense of trust that is more relevant to the manager/rebel relationship. To quote from a short paper prepared about ten years ago for the Canadian Department of Defense by Dr. Barbara Adams: A trust judgement…is characterized by a specific lack of information, and by the need to take a “leap of faith” from what is known to what is unknown. (Here’s a link to her short monograph which is well worth your time.
Isn’t the internet wonderful?) Trust, according to Dr. Adams, is only operational in situations with risk. But when managers want to know when they can TRUST rebels at work, what they really want to know is how can they make sure that their empowerment of a rebel is risk-free. Which is the wrong expectation!! Fundamentally, trust is a judgment call. The leader is making a decision even in the absence of some data—such as previous experience with an individual in a similar circumstance. But the leader can reason that the risk is justified by the potential gain. And that potential gain is not just measured by whether the idea works or not. When a leader trusts an employee with a new initiative, they not only send a signal to that individual but to the rest of the team that it’s not just experience that matters; new ideas have value too.
In fact, it’s kind of circular. The only way to determine whether you can trust a Rebel at Work is by trusting one. Trust is a muscle. It benefits from being used. The first time you provide space for team members to work on their new ideas you can’t be sure how it will turn out. But by doing so you gain experience that will inform your next trust moment and the expectations of your team. At some point, particularly if you rarely use your trust muscles, one of your decisions will misfire. (No pain, no gain!) And you will have learned something important about the individuals involved, including yourself. As Dr. Adams notes, “a trust decision typically involves the formation of an impression about another person rather than merely making an estimate with respect to a discrete and specific task.” Trust is an investment in your team and an engagement with them as individuals. The only way to strengthen it is by using it!