Inevitable mistakes

The authentic manager makes mistakes

Authenticity is a prerequisite for building trust

If, as a manager, you are brutally honest about a strategic change, you risk that parts of, or the entire basis for, the change is called into question, or that it becomes evident that there are things you do not know about the forthcoming change.

The authentic manager makes mistakes

You also risk creating unease in the organisation, and, not least, you run the risk of putting yourself and your authority as a manager on the line. To that we have only one thing to say:

Do it anyway.

Because authenticity, or having the courage to be true to yourself and your surroundings, is a prerequisite for building trust in the change. So, what is trust? The author of The Trusted Advisor, former Harvard professor David Maister, has introduced a simple equation for what builds trust. According to the equation, trust is a function of credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. The equation corresponds well with our own experience of which top managers are capable of building trust in the changes they are spear heading. And, moreover, it is a brilliant illustration of trust vanishing like dew before the sun if credibility, reliability or intimacy is absent, or the self-orientation is too pronounced.

No doubt many ambitious managers would be surprised to learn that they do not enjoy the trust of those around them in spite of their professional competences, in spite of keeping all agreements they make and in spite of taking the lead in change projects. If they lack empathy or seek to downplay that their commitment is driven by personal career objectives and stock options, their intentions will always be called into question.

This failure to appreciate what trust is may be the reason why there are still quite many managers who apparently believe they are better than other people. We have all met them, either privately where they constantly entertain us about their own outstanding merits, or at work where they carefully guard a reputation as the omniscient leader who is never wrong. In both situations, we are left wondering how in the world they managed to get as far as they have. Fortunately, this race of managers is on the verge of extinction.

Be honest about the mistakes you’ll inevitably be making

We live in a knowledge society, and no matter how disagreeable it may be to admit, it is a fact that many employees are both smarter and more competent than the manager. Try to think about it. You are an employee of a large company facing a major restructuring process initiated by management. You can see a number of uncertainties and risks, and, hopefully, also a few upsides. Who would you trust most? The manager who brushes off your doubts by signalling total control or the one who addresses the uncertainties by coming clean about the fact that he himself does not have all the answers, and that he is well aware that the plan may not be perfect, but is as good as it gets with the knowledge currently available.

Managers who succeed in creating change are honest and humble towards the scope of the change project and – not least – towards the consequences for those affected by the change. 2,000 years ago, Jesus said: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; whoever humbles himself shall be exalted”. Food for thought – not least for those of us with managerial responsibilities.