I’ve been thinking about Trust a lot lately, and in particular the current level of mistrust there is in the world and how it might be impacting leaders and organisations.
I recently got a puppy: a very head strong, independent, intelligent breed (an Airedale) who keeps us on our toes on a daily basis.
When anyone gets a puppy the first thing you do is start to communicate with them, what is allowed and isn’t allowed, setting them boundaries but giving them the freedom to develop into the amazing animal they are. I’ve had dogs in my life since the day I was born, but they’ve always been family dogs, primarily managed by my parents. This one is the first that my husband and I are wholly responsible for.
I started to reflect on our journey with our crazy little pup and realised how much insight I was getting into the world of trust. And how much of it was transferable to the world of leadership.
Primarily, the relationship with a puppy is built on a very, very important foundation of trust. If you’ve ever had the sad misfortune to meet a dog that has been given a bad start in life you will see the major reaction they have to anyone and everything is one of mistrust. They often just don’t understand what is being asked of them, and many are even scared. It takes a long time, and a lot of hard work, to encourage the dog to trust again. In many cases they never truly do.
So, when starting to communicate with a new puppy the key element is to gain their trust, because with trust comes everything else – they are more likely to behave appropriately, they are more likely to be sociable towards others (humans and animals alike), they are more likely to be independent and have a rich experience of their environment and they are more likely to repay the trust with loyalty.
And consistency is the key, as anyone who has ever worked with a new puppy will know. They will naturally push boundaries and check to make sure you are absolutely certain that you don’t want them to chew your shoes. But with consistency of message “do not chew my shoes” and reinforcing the good behaviour (i.e. dropping the shoe and chewing on a toy instead), rather than punishing the bad behaviour, the puppy will learn quickly that the message isn’t going to change. The appropriate and inappropriate behaviours are always going to be the same and the reaction of their owner will always be the same too. Consistency really is key. Of course, some puppies push boundaries a lot more and for a lot longer than others, but the more consistent the message the more likely they are to change and adopt the appropriate behaviours.
The same is the case for equality and fairness. We have 2 dogs, the other is 8 years old and we adopted him from a friend. He’s known us all his life and I believe he trusted us, which helped tremendously with the successful move to live with us. We then introduced a puppy, after long conversations about the plan to do this in a way that wouldn’t upset the older dog. The key here, again, was to create a world of trust for our older dog. When we introduced the new member of our team, he needed to know that he could trust that she would fit and be able to work with him. Whatever boundaries we gave one, we also gave the other. When one was praised for an appropriate behaviour the other was also praised, equally, when they demonstrated the same behaviour. Similarly, inappropriate behaviours, were consistently, fairly and constructively dealt with in both dogs. The puppy was not allowed to demand attention that the older dog didn’t get or side-line him. They got the same amount of attention from both of us throughout the day – which is hard when the puppy demanded attention non-stop when she was awake, and the older dog initially found it easier to remove himself and watch the fun rather than get involved. But we made a conscious and consistent effort to include the older dog, facilitating play between the two of them not just between them and us.
The more I observed what we were doing and the more I observed the reaction from the puppy (and older dog), the more I realised the parallels with trust in leadership and teams. The message remained consistent, the appropriate and inappropriate behaviours were dealt with in the same way for everyone, inclusion was critical to ensure that relationships were built, and trust was earned, learning happened easily, quickly and freely, independence and autonomy was encouraged and observed daily, kindness and generosity towards others was frequent and natural, and the team is strong and better for it.
Thinking about situations where this kind of communication with a puppy doesn’t happen also has parallels with the world of leadership. Inconsistency of communication with a puppy can lead to them simply not understanding what is appropriate and what is inappropriate – yesterday you shouted at me for doing this but today you didn’t, does that mean I’m allowed to do it or not? Yesterday you praised me for this, but today you ignore it, what does this mean? The lack of trust built through inconsistency, inequality and unfairness can lead to feelings of suspicion and even feeling psychological pain or being scared. I’ve sadly met people who have told me they are scared of their manager because they just don’t know how they’ll react to any given situation. There is zero consistency in praise, punishment or message. How can that engender trust? How can someone understand what is expected of them if it changes so often, or is different depending on whether they like you or not?
Seeing how our little team operates based on the principles of consistency, fairness, equality and inclusion gives me conviction that these are critical to trust and that trust is critical to the productivity and success of any team.
In summary, Leaders can learn a lot from puppy school when it comes to building trust:
- be consistent with how you communicate what behaviours are appropriate and inappropriate and how you praise the former and discourage the latter
- be fair and equal with your treatment of all team members
- be inclusive
- enable others to be independent and confident
- encourage learning and trying new things
- fear only leads to distrust, lack of understanding, suspicion and loneliness
- trust leads to confidence, learning, independence and inclusion
What you could do:
Ask yourself how consistent you are in the way your communication, interact with and react to your team.
Do you consider yourself a trustworthy leader? If so why? If not, why not?
What can you do to increase the levels of trust in your team?
Where can you observe trustful relationships in your life and what can you learn from these?
If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, listen to my latest podcast on why Trust is so important or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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