Monday, April 21, 2014

Trust But Verify

 Trust is one of the most fragile assets a leader has. The team's trust in you, your trust in the team. I discussed this on a previous blog entry. But trust is earned, and blind trust can cause massive problems.

Trust But Verify. Believe it or not, this is a Russian proverb ""doveryai no proveryai"" taught to President Ronald Regan by a Russian Writer named Suzanne Massie. It eventually became a phrase associated with Ronald Regan's entire Presidency. The original intent is a form of advice, recommending that while a source of information might be considered reliable, one should perform additional research to verify that such information is accurate, or trustworthy.

But there is an additional meaning for leaders. When you are in Command,  it isn't just about information, but also about the activities your team performs. Leaders cannot do everything, or be at multiple places at one time. You have to trust your team to accomplish the tasks you set them. On more complicated projects you may not be able to understand the finer details of the work that members of your team are performing, so you have to trust the subject matter experts to know their expertise.

However, trust can only take you so far. You need to verify that your team isn't just doing the work, but is doing it right. This means asking questions to ensure that they understand the work, checking deliverables to ensure that work is completed ontime and up to standard, and checking in with your team leads and team members to ensure that your intent is understood. This is all part of good Communication.

In the military we called this "spot checks." As a leader, you would occasionally walk out to your team and check the activities they were doing, ask questions, answer concerns, and then leave. You didn't give warning that you were going to perform a spot check, and you would pick random items / times to verify. If you let them know or picked in a pattern, then your team would know what to expect, do great on those items, and perhaps slouch on the things you weren't checking.

There is another benefit to the spot checks. You can use them to help the team. When you are checking on the status and asking questions, you may identify roadblocks that the team doesn't have the authority to take care of. When you find these roadblocks, it is your job to remove them, if possible. This will allow your team to make better progress, shows you care about their work, and that you care about getting the job done. All things that a team likes to see in their leader. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Sometimes, young leaders ask if this tactic erodes trust. The answer is in how you perform the checks. If you go in looking to understand, ask questions meant to verify rather than accuse, and use the opportunities to remove the roadblocks that slow you team down, then in reality, the verification enables greater trust. Your team will appreciate that you are doing your job, and foster greater trust in you.

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