Trust (Part 3) Whether your leaders think you can or can’t, they’re right

By not trusting people, we make them untrustworthy. This is a vicious cycle that can ruin relationships, kill productivity, and fuel employee turnover.

Let me tell you a story about Josh

We once had the worst engineer on our team.

Josh was hired as the senior engineer on a high priority project. After the team estimated the work, we signed the contract and started coding. We were behind schedule in the first week.

Over the next two months, Josh failed to get the project back on track. After we finished (a month late), Josh was shifted to lower priority work. His poor results proved his inability to be a senior engineer for our team, so we stopped trusting him to drive key initiatives.

At first we thought he was doing a great job in the new role. Over three months, his team delivered 5 improvements on time and 4 were delivered ahead of schedule.

This didn’t sound like the Josh we knew, so we started asking questions. We found his team was padding their estimates by 50%. Rather than taking this chance to prove his integrity, he was outright lying.

Once we learned this, we began giving his team deadlines based on reducing the estimates back to their real level. After they began missing deadlines, they started over estimating more.

We played this game for about six months until the team was quadrupling their estimates for official submission and we were cutting them to a quarter of that value for contracts.

Josh was moved to a new team and put on official probation.

We warned his new leader about his performance and recent estimation antics. Based on this, Josh’s estimates underwent a formal review with his new manager. Moreover, Josh’s time cards and code changes were cross referenced and reviewed every day to make sure he was doing the right things.

After a few months as an ineffective engineer, Josh quit.

Josh found new work within a month. The strange thing is that he has been tremendously successful at his new company and is now a Vice President. Of course, the hard lessons he learned with us probably helped him correct his deviant behavior and are a large part of his more recent successes. Right?

Performing to Expectations

We’ve all been Josh in his vicious cycle at some point in our life. We’ve all had experiences where people had set low expectations for us. Sadly, as research has shown, we will perform as poorly as we are expected to (just like we’ll perform well if those are the expectations).

That means team members whose leaders have low expectations for them, face two, nearly insurmountable barriers. The first is the tendency of humans to perform to expectations (good or bad). The second is that leaders won’t give opportunities to these team members, so they cannot even break free of these spectators and demonstrate high performance, which reinforces their standing as a low performer.

Self Fulfilling Prophecies

Consider Josh’s extra scrutiny on changes and time cards. If the same level of inspection were applied to others, would it help them improve or drag them down? We see inconsistencies in Josh’s time cards because we’re closely reviewing them. We don’t see the same problems with anyone else, because we’re not even looking.

Consider Josh’s inflated estimates. If we trusted Josh, he would have been rewarded for on-time deliveries and happy clients. Since we didn’t trust Josh, we couldn’t believe the image of him being a leader who could get things delivered on time. Thus, we went looking for what was amiss and punished him for inflating estimates.

The worst part, is that it’s a vicious cycle. Once we lose trust in Josh, we won’t let him run key projects. By not letting him run these projects, we deny him the chance to prove his trustworthiness.

Somewhat strangely, Josh’s story could have just as easily been of a virtuous cycle. In that version, he’d have been rewarded for trying his best on the first project and he’d have been given accolades for on time deliveries with his second group.

Looking through the lenses of fundamental attribution & confirmed biases

If leaders can set people on downward or upward trajectories based on their perceptions, what does that imply for our promotion selection process?


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