Connect first, then lead

Source: Management Team (02/05/2018); Author: Karlien Vanderheyden

How do you create a trusting relationship with your staff as a leader?

We judge others based on two criteria, namely their warmth and their competence. Amy Cnuddy from Harvard Business School has conducted considerable research on this subject. Employees also apply these criteria to their managers. Leaders we see as competent but not very warm are often feared and envied. Employees feel they will never be able to match their knowledge and skill. That results in a fear of making mistakes. On the other hand, leaders who are considered warm but less competent often evoke pity and a lack of respect.

These two dimensions determine 90% of our impressions of the people around us. You need both to create a sense of trust. It is important to note, however, that this is just a matter of perception. Your employees may perceive you as someone with a certain degree of warmth or competence, but that does not mean you really are the way they see you. It is your duty to change that perception if you need to do so to create a more trusting relationship with your staff.

What comes first, warmth or competence?

Research shows that your starting point should be warmth, because it helps you instantly connect with the people around you. After all, it shows you are listening to them and understand them. Alex Todorov and his colleagues at Princeton University have proved that when we glance at someone’s face, we pick up signals of warmth before we notice competence. If you show your competence first, you risk intimidating people. And that can have plenty of negative consequences. Fear compromises creativity and problem-solving, and can make people feel pushed into a corner. As a result, they may give up. Employees may also be unwilling to help others, because they are not sure their efforts will be acknowledged.

If you score well in terms of both warmth and competence, you will create a relationship of trust with your employees. They will be more eager to exchange information and ideas, there will be more openness and cooperation, and they will show more respect for each other’s ideas. It is normal to feel insecure from time to time, but your employees will deal with this insecurity better if you, their leader, know what you are doing, remain calm, show understanding and act decisively.

How to create trust

1. Show warmth
  • Pay attention to people
    Seek eye contact, nod regularly in conversations to show you understand what has been said, and smile. Your non-verbal communication shows your staff you care about them. The emotions they read on your face are infectious.
  • Show empathy
    Ask questions to get to know your employees better. Share some personal experiences as well, such as how you felt at the beginning of your career. Identify and acknowledge your staff’s concerns, for example during a key reorganisation.
  • Trust them first
    Share information with your employees, spend some of your time listening to their problems or ideas, and give advice. By initiating this yourself, your employees will be more eager to do the same.
2. Show competence
  • Demonstrate willpower
    When faced with setbacks, fight back, thinking not only of yourself but your employees in particular. Do not let excessive emotions get the better of you; try to keep them under control. This shows your employees you have willpower.
  • Avoid overconfidence
    Overconfidence can lead to unrealistic goals, a lack of attention to detail and wrong decisions. As a result, your employees will perceive you as far less competent than you truly are.
  • Posture is everything
    Researchers Dana Carney, Amy Cnuddy and Andy Yap suggest you adopt a ‘power posture’. This is a very open posture: you look at people, stand up straight (without slouching) and maximise the physical space your body takes up. This posture is associated with power and competence.
  • Share knowledge
    Share your knowledge of content and processes, your experiences, your ideas on how to tackle future projects and so on. This shows your employees what you have to offer.

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