I drew the inspiration for this post from a plethora of ‘wise’ advices exchanged during the months of Corona lockdown. Advices from homemakers and business leaders alike, each a team leader in his or her own domain.  It is a known principle that trust is the oxygen of a well-functioning, innovative and courageous team. Trust, however, cannot be prescribed like an aspirin and I wonder how many of us really reflect on why Trust is so essential to a team. And the many ways there are to build and rebuild trust (and the many more to trash it).

I am going to discuss how a leader’s ability to maintain and radiate control provides a comforting blanket where trust can flourish.

In times of ordinary uncertainty and stress levels, we expect our team leader to show empathy, fairness and active listening. We like our team leader to give space to everybody to express their contribution, to deal openly and constructively with rejections and feedback. We also expect the team leader to pave the way when it comes to dealing with unconstructive attitudes and actions, so that we grow a solid trust in the fact that team behavior will be rewarded and that we are ‘safe’. Yes, because when we feel safe, our reptilian reactions (attack or defense) are kept under control and our higher cognitive functions (creativity to lead them all) can express themselves in full glory.

But we rarely live in circumstance of ordinary stress. There is always an unforeseen event lurking in the mailbox. These unforeseen events mean our instinctive reactions of fear or anger can wash down all those beautiful Trust feelings down the drain in seconds. When unforeseen events happen, a strong team leader can protect the feeling of Trust of her team by showing Control.

Control does not mean that the leader is a micromanaging boss, but rather that she is firmly in control of the situation and radiates confidence through her communication. Different strategies can help. The leader may say

'We have planned for different scenarios and this is one of them: so this is what we will do.'

Beautiful, uncertainty is gone. Ideally, we have learned to make planning for different scenarios an integral part of any strategic planning … so we are really ready!

'We have planned for different scenarios but this is NOT one of them. However, we have been in similar situations in the past (remember this or that event…) and we have been and shall be successful.'

The leader leverages positive reinforcement to boost the trust in the teams’ own abilities: the basis of resilience.

'Having to deal with an heighten volume of novel work, we TRIAGE relentlessly: classifying by urgency and importance, code-red life threatening, code-yellow serious, code-green .. well we will deal with it later.'

As a leader, prioritize to avoid asking your team the impossible, demotivating them in the face of overwhelming tasks. To tackle the overall task is often too big and too daunting, so focus on one step at a time. Remembering to celebrate any step forward and share the roadmap so everybody knows where we are going.
But most of all, the leader communicates confidently, proactively and openly before monsters are born in the gossip grapevine. Everybody has experienced how much energy is required to correct a fake news. Much better: anticipate it!

So we see that Trust, in a moment of stress, takes up an additional meaning: I have Trust that my team leader will lead us to a successful outcome and I have Trust in ourselves that we can achieve it together.

I also can’t resist, since half of the world population has been watching the series ‘la casa de papel’ (money heist), drawing the parallel between the Professor’s firm control skills and the unfaltering trust of the team in the face of impossible challenges.

In conclusion: A Leaders ability to radiate Control and Confident Communication are the shield of team Trust during stressful times.