My dad was recently involved in a very large project, working as the project manager. It was a construction project with a handful of contracting companies that he had worked with in the past. One of the crews, though, decided they wanted to get lazy on the job and did about an hour worth of work in about 5 hours, one day.
The real issue was that this was the first day on the job for this crew – there was no history of good work on this job site, and immediately obvious reason why it was taking so long. So my dad called their manager and talked to him about what was happening – very friendly, offering the manager opportunity to explain, and wanting to find a reason why this was ok for the first day.
A few days later, my dad was walking with one of his project leads and passed through the area where this team was working. One of the crew members looked up and said “coming to check up on us?” with a grin on his face. My dad stood silent for a moment, while his project lead said “why? do I need to?” The construction worker immediately became aware of himself and tried to back out of the conversation, awkwardly saying “well, no. Of course not!”
That crew never had any issues afterward – they did great work, got it done on time, and built a professional relationship with my dad and the other project leads.
Trust The Team
I have to admit, I would not have been quite so astute in my response if I were the project lead. I probably would have blurted out, “Yes.” with a very serious tone of voice, had I been asked if I were checking up on the crew. But that’s not the kind of thing that I really want to do, and I certainly wouldn’t want a project manager to do that to me. It creates an air of distrust, as if you were spying on people with cameras and accusing them of not working, constantly.
No one wants to work in an environment like that. We need freedome, flexibility, autonomy and independence to do our jobs – the same as the construction crew needed.
Now, this doesn’t mean that my dad never checked the work they did. There are a lot of regulations that have to be met, a lot of plans that need to be accounted for, and a lot of safety issues that need to be addressed when doing commercial construction. It was absolutely necessary to verify the work, just as it is necessary to verify the software we build before shipping to customers. That doesn’t mean there is no trust. It only means that we recognize human fallibility and the need to verify work, in spite of the trust that we place in people.
Trust, But Verify
There’s a saying that I learned a long time ago from some ex-military friends and co-workers: trust, but verify. The idea is simple. You default to trusting someone for whatever it is… work or otherwise. But that doesn’t mean you have to be blind and wreckless with your trust. It’s ok to verify the information provided. In fact, it’s usually a good idea. No one is perfect. Mistakes are made. It happens.
But when mistakes are made, we only need to educate and correct the mistake. If we trust the person that made the mistake, we can help them learn and they will improve.
Trust vs Assistance
It’s also important to understand the difference between blind trust and assistance.
I once assigned a team member some work that I knew was just beyond their current ability. I did this to help them stretch and grow. But I made a mistake and blindly let them go at it for nearly 6 weeks. Sure, I asked for updates on progress but I never once offered to do a design or code review, and I left it up to them to ask questions and seek help. The results were … a mistake. I squarely blamed myself in the retrospective for the work he did. I knew I should have spent more time offering assistance, and helping him to grow in to the design skill that I wanted him to reach.
My desire to trust, blindly, created a lost opportunity for someone to grow faster and ended up costing a lot of time and money for the project.
Trust, Assist, and always Verify
There are two extremes, here: absolute trust, and never trusting. A great leader will understand how far to lean toward either end of this spectrum, in nearly any situation. That doesn’t mean mistakes won’t be made, but that they will be caught early and corrected.
Default to a high level of trust, in your team and your coworkers. Assist when someone is having a hard time or is given a task that they must grow in to. And always verify the work they do, to ensure it will perform as needed.