The impact of fear and trust on leadership

July 2013 » Columns » AEC COACH
Mark Goodale

Fear and trust produce dramatically different effects on leadership teams throughout the A/E industry. In fact, it appears to bring out the very best and worst in firms. Those teams that are built on trust consistently embrace new challenges while those driven by fear continue to stumble.

Some teams are dominated by leaders who are driven by fear, drive fear through others, or both. In good times, it might be a tolerable situation. Strong financial performance has a way of covering up problems (think of a center fielder who seldom gets a "good jump" on fly balls but because of his speed can cover enough ground to make the catch anyway). But even then, top performers who are not appreciated or respected will always have one foot out the door.

If the firm is not performing (the center fielder has lost a step and he's not making all the catches anymore), the results of a dysfunctional leadership team can be devastating. Whether it's demanding unrealistic results, ignoring good advice because it didn't come from them, or simply being unable to trust anyone – which in turn makes them untrustworthy – leaders who allow themselves to be ruled, and/or rule, by fear can do irreparable damage to their firms and themselves.

On the other hand, leadership teams that are able to cope in any kind of weather seem to have one thing in common: relationships that are built on a strong foundation of trust. Team members are willing to listen to each other, accept opinions other than their own, and build on ideas together. They believe their partners are motivated by good intentions, even when initial comments or actions might seem objectionable. Instead of assuming negative intent, which they know will make them angry and defensive, they focus on listening without filters. They don't waste time and energy on misattributing comments or behaviors by dreaming up less-than-flattering stories in their heads. Instead, they talk it through until they fully understand what's really driving the "situation" – and whether there actually even is a "situation."

While there may be stress from time to time within these teams, each member shows a genuine, mutual respect for their partners. They rarely go long periods without communicating with one another and they don't hold grudges. Leadership teams that have this foundation of trust hit issues head on and move quickly and eagerly to the next challenge. They realize that pointing their weapons at problems rather than at each other ultimately propels their firms to greater success.

If your leadership team is fraying at the edges, pull them together, say what needs to be said, encourage others to do the same, and then work through the issues. It's that simple and it's that hard.

If you don't want to do that, ask yourself why until you get to the root cause. Is it because you just want to keep the peace? Is it because you are too close to your partners and you think you can't confront them on their performance? (Leaders often fear that their partners will leave the firm if confronted about poor performance, resulting in potentially damaging short-term consequences.) Is it because you can't get past some slight you think was aimed at you? Or is it that you have no need for their input in the first place? (In this case, why are they or you still in the firm?)

If you really want to build trust, try sharing one of those root concerns with your team. Showing that kind of vulnerability, sincerity, and courage will garner the respect of those partners worth their salt, and they, in turn, will open up to you.

What kind of leader are you? What kind do you want to be? Maybe it's time to trade in fear for trust.

Mark Goodale is principal with Morrissey Goodale LLC in Newton, Mass. Morrissey Goodale LLC is a management consulting and research firm that serves the AEC industry. He can be contacted at mgoodale@morrisseygoodale.com.


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