Create an Environment of Trust

A few years ago, as an IT Manager, I was sitting at my computer when an email came in from one of my team members. As it flashed up on the screen, the subject caught my eye: “I stuffed up. I mean, really stuffed up. I am so sorry”

When I opened the email, it transpired that the team member had been doing some work on a production computer system and had hit a wrong button, causing the system to become unavailable to our users. IT outages are never welcome, and explanations are always in demand. This was not a good position for this team member to be in; no one likes a non-working IT system.

The team member was well aware of the potential ramifications, but instead of hiding his mistake, he had sent an email his peers and to myself (as his manager, and the person who would have to justify and explain the outage to our management and clients). He explained exactly what he had done, and how he planned to recover from it. He also went on to suggest the possible punishments for which he felt he might be worthy.

When I looked at the email, I wasn’t excited about what this meant. Explaining system outages is never nice, and system outages caused by human error often result in people wanting blood. I stopped and read the email a few times over the next couple of minutes, while I thought of how to respond constructively. I tried to think of the positives that I could use to create something useful from this situation. There was only one positive that I could think of: a member of my team had felt completely safe in confessing to his manager and his peers that he had made a genuine mistake that had resulted in a significant impact to clients. There was a huge risk for him in making this confession; everyone knows someone who has been severely reprimanded or even lost their job as the result of an unauthorised IT change and nobody wants to be that person. Even with that knowledge, he had confessed.

With this in mind, I opted to reply all to his email with: “Thank you so much for your honesty. What do you need from me in order for us to resolve this quickly?” As I replied, replies from team members also started to come in. Some of them had a laugh at his expense; all of them offered him help, support and advice.

Once service was restored, I sat down with him to establish exactly what happened. Between us, we came up with an explanation that was truthful but would not result in too much damage for him or the team. I am not in any way suggesting that we covered the real story up; we were honest. I am also not suggesting that we took this lightly; we all knew that this wasn’t something that could be repeated in a hurry.

It felt amazing to be a part of a team where people felt safe in telling the truth. Had this team member not been honest, we may have wasted time investigating the issue when we could have been resolving it. It also felt amazing to be a part of a team who supported someone who took a risk in telling us the truth, because it most likely meant that other team members would feel safe in doing the same.

Wherever we employ humans, we will always run the risk of human error. However, how we deal with human error as leaders will determine how our teams deal with their errors.

What are some ways in which you encourage openness and honesty in your teams?






Leadership roles can be tough. There is a lot of literature available, but I often feel as though learning from someone else’s practical experience would be more useful to me than the theory that I have read in many leadership books, especially in the early days of my leadership journey.

Throughout the years, I have had some great experiences in leadership roles, and I have had some less than great experiences. I have tried my best to learn from all experiences. This blog is about sharing those lessons. Some of it will be about leadership, some of it will be about personal growth. I hope that all of it, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it, will provide you with something to reflect on and from which your own learning can benefit.

I would also love the opportunity to learn from your experiences, so please feel free to leave your thoughts as comments; I would love to read them.

Extraordinary Leadership

When we think of great leadership, we tend to think of qualities such as compassion, flexibility, understanding, honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, respect, integrity, trust in others, strength, and so the list goes on. But is great leadership really about possessing all of these qualities? Can one person be all of the above? What makes an extraordinary leader?

If leadership is defined as the creation of change, then a leader is someone who is working to move on from the status quo; someone who is working to “create a new future”. How would an extraordinary leader create a new future?

The book The Three Laws of Performance : Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan talks about how situations occur differently to different people. That is, how a situation occurs to one team member may be different to how it occurs to another team member, which may be different again to how that same situation occurs to a senior leader in an organisation. The first law that Zaffron and Logan refer to states that “How people perform correlates to how the situation occurs to them”. So, changing how the situation occurs to people will change their performance and changing their performance would then have an impact on the future that the leader is trying to achieve.

Assume that an organisation is going down the path of losing a key client. Teams aren’t delivering what the client expects them to deliver, and processes that the organisation is contractually obliged to follow aren’t being followed. To a team in the organisation, this may be occurring as though the senior leadership team is not prepared to support their teams by fixing broken processes. To a senior leader in the organisation, this may be occurring as though the team is recalcitrant because they were failing to follow processes that, to them, are in place and working well. The senior leadership team may want to change the future so that they don’t lose client. Based on the way the situation is occurring to them, they may order the team to start following process and threaten repercussions if they don’t. After all, from their perspective, the team is being recalcitrant.

In this situation, the way in which the situation is occurring to the team would be reinforced, providing the team with more “evidence” that the senior leadership team is not supporting them in fixing process. The best that could be expected would be that the team would continue to perform as they were previously. The organisation would still be on the path to losing the client.

What would have happened if the senior leadership team had tried to understand how the situation was occurring to those involved, and then worked to show the team that they were willing to address the process issues? Would this have changed the way in which the situation was occurring to the team? It most likely would have, and, with the situation occurring differently to the team, everyone would have been better placed to work together on effecting the change – ie maintaining the client.

Understanding that situations occur differently to individuals requires awareness. If a leader has no awareness of how a situation is occurring to the people around them, and no awareness of the impact that their behaviours are having on those people’s interpretation of the situation, how can they confidently and competently move towards changing the default future? The above example suggests that they can’t.

What about all of the other qualities that we normally attribute to great leadership; the qualities that were mentioned at the beginning of this post? Although each of these qualities is important, they would not have been enough without awareness. Having a level of awareness that is sufficient enough to call upon these qualities as required would be more effective. Additionally, a leader who is aware enough of their own limitations would also know when they have to call upon these qualities from other resources. For example, the leader may not need to have a strength in compassion; knowing that compassion is required in a situation and knowing where to call upon in order to be in a position to apply compassion may be enough.

Extraordinary leadership, I believe, is about extraordinary awareness.

What are your thoughts on extraordinary leadership? Have you ever had an extraordinary leader? It would be wonderful to read your thoughts in the comments below.

Giving Feedback

Feedback is the breakfast of champions

Ken Blanchard

Many years ago, I worked for an organisation where the CEO was rumoured to have the quote “Feedback is the food of champions” on his office wall. I never went into his office, so I am unable to confirm whether the rumour was true. However, this quote became one of my favourites, because I honestly believe that the feedback that we provide to others can have amazing results if delivered appropriately.

Most of us like to hear when we are doing well. However, feedback is more than that. Feedback is about identifying the opportunities for improvement and things that aren’t going so well, in addition to the good, great and awesome stuff. And, in my assessment, not only do we owe it to the people working for, with and around us to give them both negative and positive feedback, but we also owe it to them to give it to them promptly and respectfully.

I think that the majority of us find positive feedback the easiest feedback to give; it is not hard to tell someone that they are awesome, or that that their efforts have made a difference to us. Sometimes, it might even be too easy to provide positive feedback to someone. For this reason, I like to ask myself whether the feedback that I am going to give is genuine. If I don’t think that I am being genuine then I don’t say it. I want people to know that I mean it when I provide feedback; I want to be genuine and authentic. This is important for my own ethics and integrity, but it is also important to me for another reason – I want people to know that they can trust me. I also don’t want to tell someone that they are great at something if it means that I will have to ask them to improve that same thing in future.

When I provide positive feedback, I try to explain what it was about the person’s actions that helped me, what outcome they helped to provide, and why I appreciated their efforts.

Giving negative feedback can be rather scary. However, I believe that providing people with opportunities for development is equally, if not more, important than providing them with positive feedback. It is these opportunities that help people to grow.

When I first became a manager, I remember avoiding providing negative feedback like the plague. I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and was worried about what they might think. I also probably tended to question my judgement – what if I was about to give them negative feedback for something that I had totally misinterpreted? My answer to this question, with the benefit of experience behind me, is to always have the conversation; don’t let it be missing. If you think there is an issue with the way in which someone is behaving or performing, talk to them about it, and do it promptly. Give them a chance to respond, so that you can try to understand it from their point of view, but have the conversation. In my opinion, there is not a lot worse than thinking that we are doing a great job, and finding out that someone is too scared to tell us that we are not. It doesn’t provide us with an opportunity for growth, and it is unfair to everyone involved.

So how do we provide less-than-positive feedback? There is no easy way to do this. Some people like “the feedback sandwich” – some positive feedback, the negative and then another positive. I tend to tailor my approach to suit the situation. I like the feedback sandwich in performance appraisals, but I don’t like it so much if I have a specific issue to deal with. I do, however,  have a few rules that I try to stick to:

  • Remove emotion and ego from the discussion. The discussion is about the outcome that you are trying to achieve and the behaviour that you would like to see improved;
  • Follow up on negative behaviour promptly; don’t hold off on having the conversation;
  • Be very clear about what the issue is, how you would like to see it improved, and what outcome you are after. Provide examples of the behaviour that you are seeing;
  • Try to explain how the behaviour currently impacts you/the organisation/other people/etc, and how the preferred behaviour would improve this. Provide examples of what you would like to see.
  • Ask the person for their thoughts on the issue, and what they need from you in order to achieve the change.
  • Always be respectful. Providing negative feedback is not about accusing, berating or belittling the individual; it is about working with the individual with a view of getting the best outcome for the individual and the organisation.
  • Give the individual the right of reply, and address any of their concerns or questions.

It is important when providing negative feedback that the individual is given something to work with – the aim of providing them with feedback is to set them up for a win. As an example, a colleague once told me that I was “too gentle” with my staff. But what does this mean? What was the impact of me being “too gentle”? Why was it an issue for this colleague? Was it just that he generally had a tougher approach than I did and wanted me to be tough too (in which case, I would probably choose the approach that got the best results for me), or was it that deliverables weren’t being met because of my approach (in which case changing it in some way was probably best)? Without understanding the impact, I didn’t know what to change; I didn’t know what success would be. When given without additional information and examples, the feedback was really nothing more than a throwaway statement. Whilst I may have sought to understand what my colleague was saying so that I could use his feedback constructively, it is fair to assume that most people would just ignore the attempt at feedback and move on if the issue and requirements were not clear. Although this is understandable, it isn’t really what we are aiming for. We want the person to take the feedback on board, and we want them to use that feedback to deliver the best outcome.

I mentioned that respect is important. In my opinion, it is essential. The objective is to achieve the best outcome for the individual and the organisation. Creating an environment where the individual feels disrespected or belittled, is not conducive to that (in my opinion).

How do you provide feedback to others? Is there something that you would like to change about this? Do you have a tried and true method that works for you?