How to build trust as a new manager: Lessons from the military

Andrew Watson our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 27 November 2019

“Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision: its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, timetables and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.” 

This article is based on an excellent piece of work by Will Meddings on what it takes for new Army officers to win the trust of their superiors. Will Meddings is a senior serving British Army Officer who is currently working for the Centre for Army Leadership. I have sought to transfer Meddings’ comments from a military setting to one of general business.

Four Questions

Will Meddings identifies 4 questions that a senior officer will use to determine whether to trust a subordinate.  Does the person have the following?

  • Right Intentions – are they acting for the best of the organisation? 
  • Competence – have they the right skills, knowledge and attributes for the job?
  • Open communication – is the person open with their communication – will they approach, brief and challenge me?
  • What do others think of their new leader – how do peers or team members rate the new manager’s trustworthiness?

A senior executive will trust a junior manager, providing they have the right intentions.  But what does the phrase “right intentions” mean?  Will Meddings identifies the following key elements that show you have the “right intentions”.  The first is more important than all the rest:  selflessness.

Point 1:  Be selfless

Those who put their team and goals first will quickly win the trust of the team/organisation.  Managers must selflessly put the needs of the strategic goals and their team above themselves.

Loyalty flows downwards before it flows upwards.  Managers cannot expect to have the backing of their team and their superiors if they put themselves first.

But to put the business strategy first, you need to understand what that strategy is.  This leads to Point 2.

Point 2:  Understand the business strategy

Untrusted managers either fail to understand the business strategy (through lack of ability and interest); or twist these objectives to suit their own purposes. Either way, your senior leadership and your team will struggle to put their faith in you if you don’t demonstrate a complete understanding and commitment to the business goals.

Point 3:  Be good at your job - consistently

No team or leader will trust a manager who can’t do their job.  Basic competency in carrying out the day-to-day is an obvious factor. But being “good” is not enough - a manager needs to excel at certain aspects of their role to accelerate winning the trust of their team and superiors. In addition, a leader has to deliver consistency in their activities.  Trust is built through both competence and the repeated demonstration of it.

Point 4.  Be diligent.  Attention to detail matters

There is always a temptation to cut corners for busy managers, especially if others are doing it.  Effective managers win trust by giving tasks the intentions they deserve. They will carry out their roles diligently and will pay attention to detail in both planning and execution.

Point 5. Be self-disciplined

Leaders are more trusted if they are “mature and self-controlled”.  This also means avoid acting impulsively. 

Point 6:  Do not be afraid to approach, brief or even challenge your senior leaders

A good senior leader will want subordinates who are not afraid to openly and honesty communicate with them.  Approach your leadership executives with information, back brief them and query the plan.  Some leaders even like to have their plans challenged – but check first and learn how to do it right.  Back-briefs and questioning of leaders’ intentions shows the manager understand and are engaged in what is being asked of them. A trusted manager will have the courage of their convictions.

Point 7:  If you make a mistake, own up

Making mistakes is a normal part of a manager’s personal development.  But if you try and hide the mistake, you run the risk of letting the situation fester and grow into a more serious problem.  It shows you care more about yourself than the team or organisation.  Admitting mistakes demonstrates honesty but also creates the opportunity to recover from the mistake. 

And finally:  Reputation matters

Will Medding’s final point is one of the most important.  “Reputation matters.  A lot.”  People want to be proud of their organisation and of those who manage them.Summary – It’s all about leadership and professional skills

To be trusted as a manager and reap the rewards that this trust brings, you must help your senior leadership team answer the following four questions about you.

  • Do you have the right intentions and are you acting for the best of the organisation?
  • Do you have the competence – the right skills, knowledge and attributes – for the job?
  • Are you able to fully and openly communicate with them?
  • And do others in the company believe you are trustworthy?

Providing the answers to these questions is not difficult. But building and winning trust as a manager takes effort and time.

“It takes three years to build a ship.  It takes 30 years to build a reputation.  Both can be lost in minutes” - Royal Navy saying.

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