Trust motivates. Show it. Use it.

How I learned the effect of trust on my motivation



I’m changing two managers – one you know of.“, said my CEO (let’s call him Jack) one day. Within three months from the previous line and related to two distinct other discussion topics, Jack said, “Trust me, I’ve done everything possible regarding this matter.“, and “There are also other reasons for this project, but I cannot tell those to you now.

After each conversation, I was left puzzled about the lack of trust there was. I value integrity very high and considered myself extremely trustworthy and had never leaked any confidential information others had given me. So, it can’t be my reputation, I thought. I could feel how the distrust Jack demonstrated started eroding my motivation. Why did Jack not tell me, or the whole management team about the details? Why did he hint about the other manager, but gave no details? Later on, I encouraged myself to ask him the reason of not giving the full disclosure and it turned out that his “tongue just slipped”.  Maybe that was an excuse to behavior Jack couldn’t sensibly explain even himself. I didn’t dare raise an issue to Jack, my boss, about that behavior being repeated by him. I felt Jack did not trust us. In the other topic, he expected me to trust him blindly, and so I did. My trust towards him probably helped our relationship. His lack of trust towards me didn’t. I’m pretty certain the board of directors had not asked him to keep the changes secret. At least typically boards do not give such guidance to CEOs.

Trust motivates

Trust is a big thing for motivation. No. Trust is a HUGE thing for motivation. And I seldom write in all caps. Trust is the thin red line connecting many leadership behaviors that can pave your way to success – or failure. In her article Why trust motivates employees more than pay, the author Jennifer Reingold writes: “…workplaces with high trust and a strong culture actually do better as businesses.“. The effect of trust is everywhere. Trust shapes communication experience of short one-on-one discussions – like the one I had with Jack – to massive all staff webcasts (see below for examples). With trust, you can directly affect the Autonomy cornerstone Daniel Pink writes about in his book Drive, where he explains the Autonomy-Mastery-Purpose trinity that affects your motivation.

Show it. Use it.

You lose the motivation impact of your trust on a person, if the other person doesn’t feel or understand the exceptional level of trust you have on her. And explicitly showing lack of trust has the corresponding negative effect. Imagine the impact on everyone’s motivation, if a CEO told in the all staff video call: “We are making good progress with the sales of our new product. Trust me, it will be a great success. I’ll let you know the details later.”  and the converse impact of “I trust you and share this internal early info to you: We have gained 20 interested new leads with our new product and have closed two small deals worth 50k€. Just after three weeks from the release, we have 500k€ worth of offers out for the product. I’ll inform you within two weeks about the progress.“. In many organizations, such info is nowadays available to all employees in the company dashboards or ERP, but I made an artificial example for the sake of highlighting the contrast. Listed companies are a chapter of their own with their insider lists. But please do not use that as an excuse for not trusting your people. It just takes more effort. The reward comes with the boosted motivation.

In addition to the motivation, the presence or lack of trust shapes the entire company culture. Organizations that show trust and embrace the autonomy aspect – like Supercell – are able to super-motivate their employees to their best performance level.

I recently read about a general, who changed the US military organization’s communications practices in Iraq from several hierarchical 50 persons’ status update calls to a single all-staff call of up to thousands of participants. That change showed great trust in a very conservative environment and enabled faster communications and most likely also motivated all the stakeholders.

Summary of my lesson learned and reflections

Mutual trust motivates. Explicitly communicated trust is better than any trust deductions by the trusted person. Unconditional trust motivates better than trust shown with a lot of added conditions. An expectation for single-sided trust doesn’t motivate – especially, if the expectation is spiced up with minimal explanations. If you cannot give a full disclosure, it may be better to not even hint about the matter. At minimum: If you have to leave some parts out, let the other person know, why you have to do it. At bare minimum: Promise to catch up later on to explain and keep your promise.

In retrospective, I should have asked why Jack didn’t trust me. That might have sparked evolution in his behavior, in my thinking, or at least an interesting discussion.

Phew! I have to confess trust and motivation as my first blog post’s topic was a rather heavy challenge, but I enjoyed every moment of going through this lesson learned again and expanding my thoughts.

Please share your experiences and thoughts on how trust affects motivation. We can all learn from each other.

The stakeholders related to this lesson learned: CEO, management team, employees affected by management changes, board of directors.


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