Successful Supervisor 58 Don’t Be a Bully Supervisor

December 31, 2017

A student in one of my graduate leadership classes posed an interesting question. If bully supervisors cause so much grief, why are so many of them allowed to remain in power?

The question got me thinking of the many reasons bully supervisors, even the extreme ones, seem to hang onto their positions. Here are some of the reasons:

Weak Leadership Above

If a bully supervisor is allowed to remain in place, it means the leaders above him or her are not doing a good job. If those in charge look the other way while a supervisor is abusing people, then they are the real culprits.

It is rather easy to spot a bully supervisor when doing a 360 degree review process, so once one is identified, if the person is allowed to stay in a supervisory position year after year, I blame the next level of leadership.

Also, weak leadership might look the other way because the bully has powerful allies. Bully supervisors intimidate people at their own level and higher in the organization. They know the buttons to push or people to pressure in order to get their own way. If a weak leader is afraid of the bully, that can be a reason this person is allowed to continue.

If the bully is the top dog and not beholden to anyone, there is no force from above to curtail the negative behaviors. In this case, barring some kind of epiphany, the bully will keep on with the same conduct until he or she leaves. Attempts from below to enlighten this person will usually be fruitless; they may even exacerbate the problem.

Sufficing

A bully supervisor does elicit compliance because people are fearful. The unit reporting to this supervisor will perform at a credible level, even though people are unhappy and underutilized.

The crime is that the unit could be so much better, and the lives of the workers could be richer if the supervisor was replaced by someone with higher Emotional Intelligence.

Many units get by sufficing on a culture of compliance and avoidance and do not even realize the huge potential they are missing.

Being Clueless

I have written on this before. The idea is that most bullies simply do not see themselves accurately. They would view themselves as being tough or having high standards of conduct.

My observation is that most bully supervisors are genuinely proud of their prowess at getting people to behave. They have no impetus to change, because their twisted logic reinforces the behaviors that elicit compliance.

They often view themselves as smarter than the people working for them and bark out orders because they sincerely believe they know best.

Another clueless possibility is that the entire corporate culture is stuck in this Ebenezer Scrooge mentality. Hard as it is to fathom, there are still old-style companies where management likes to terrorize. The same holds for family businesses where one generation intimidates the next.

Lack of trust

A bully supervisor trashes trust on a daily basis without realizing it. When trust is low, all other functions in the organization operate like a car would run on watered-down gasoline.

The irony is that when the bully supervisor sees things sputtering and not working well, the logical reaction is to jump in with combat boots on to “fix” the problems. That bullying behavior perpetuates the problem in a vicious cycle of cause and effect. If there is no external force to break the cycle, it will just continue.

Short term focus

Most bully supervisors have a fixation on short term actions and do not see the long term damage being done to the culture. They would describe “culture” as some squishy concept that is for softies.

If you propose ideas to improve the culture to a bully supervisor, he or she will start talking about performance and accountability.

Holding people accountable is a very popular phrase in management these days. Imagine a world where there was less need to talk about holding people accountable because the culture they worked in was one that automatically extracted their maximum discretionary effort.

If the vast majority of workers in a unit habitually performed at the very peak of their potential because they wanted to, then accountability would take care of itself.

Lack of skills

Bully supervisors often have not had good leadership capabilities built in through training and mentoring. You cannot blame a tyrant if he or she has never been shown a better way to lead.

Bully supervisors are often accused of having a “my way or the highway” attitude toward people, but I would contend that many of these misguided individuals simply feel “my way is the only way I know how to get things done.”

For these leaders, some intensive reprogramming can be an effective antidote only if they come to the table eager to learn new ways.

Fear means people will not challenge

Most workers are not going to be willing to challenge a bully supervisor. The fear of getting their heads chopped off for leveling with the boss makes the prospect of telling the truth feel like knowingly walking into a lion’s den.

Every once in a while there is a person so foolish or confident that he will just walk into the lion’s den because there is little to lose. This person can help provide shock therapy for bully leaders by providing data on how the behaviors are actually blocking the very things the leader wants to accomplish.

These people might be called “whistle blowers” because they provide an errant supervisor, or the leadership above, with knowledge of what is actually happening.

Occasionally, a bully supervisor is so extreme that he or she must be removed and replaced by a more people-oriented supervisor. Unfortunately, it is also true that many bully bosses have the ability to remain in place for long stretches.

This adhesion to power is extremely costly to the organization in terms of current and future performance along with a prime cause of high turnover. If you have a bully supervisor reporting to you, get him or her some help through training or coaching. If that does not work, move the bully out of a leadership role and put in someone with high Emotional Intelligence.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Successful Supervisor 28 – Dealing with Bullies

May 28, 2017

In any group of people (or even animals) there is usually one or more bullies. For this series I will give tips for people, but if you spend much time watching animals you will see ample evidence of bully behavior.

For any supervisor, the bullies take up an inordinate amount of time and energy to keep in check. Reason: these people have found out that they can usually get their way by being the most formidable people in the group.

They learned that the technique works years ago on the school-yard playground.

In order to have peace in the valley, other people eventually learn to not challenge the bully, so it falls on the shoulders of the supervisor to maintain order. Sometimes it is the supervisor herself that exhibits the tendencies of a bully.

Bullying has become a key concept in our society. We see forms of it in every area from the school yard to Congress, from the boardroom to the barroom, and from the Waffle House to the White House. We universally abhor the behavior in school kids, but yet we often see it practiced every day as adults.

We know the incredible destructive nature of bullying because all of us have been bullied at some point in our lives, and we know it does not feel good. We know it leads to suicide in rare cases, especially in children, because they do not know how to cope with the powerless feeling of being bullied. They would simply rather die.

It is also true that each one of us has been guilty of bullying another person at some point. If you wish to deny that, you need to think harder. Some of us have played the role of the bully more than others.

Some supervisors have bullying down to a fine art. Unfortunately, people in power positions have a greater temptation to use bullying because it is a way to obtain compliance. The problem is that, in organizations, mere compliance is not going to get the job done.

Organizational bullying is not confined to verbal abuse or strong body language. It also occurs when headstrong managers or supervisors become so fixated on their own agenda that it renders them effectively deaf to the ideas or concerns of others.

They become like a steamroller and push their agenda with little regard for what others think. In this area, there is a fine line between being a passionate, driving leader who really believes and advocates for the goal versus one who is willing to hear and consider alternate points of view.

While we are mammals, we have a more developed brain and greater power to reason than lesser species. If we use that power, we should realize that bullying behavior usually leads to the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.

Bullying may seem like a convenient expedient, but it does not work well in the long run.

If you are an elk, I suspect you are only thinking of the situation at hand and reacting to a threat to your power or position. You are not thinking longer term about relationships and possible future alliances, nor do you care how your behaviors might inspire other elk to perform at their best.

The aptitude to plan and care is what separates man from the animal world.
Applying this logic in an organization is pretty simple.

Supervisors who bully their way to get people to do their bidding are actually building up resentment and hostility. While this practice may produce short term compliance, it works against objectives long term.

By taking a kinder approach, supervisors can achieve more consistent results over the long haul and obtain full cooperation from people rather than simple compliance.

Here are ten tips to reduce the tendency to bully other people:

1. Ask if you would want to be treated this way – Simply apply the Golden Rule.

2. Observe the reaction and body language in other people – If they cower or retreat when you bark out commands, you are coming on too strong.

3. Be sensitive to feedback – It takes courage to listen when someone tells you that you are being a bully. Ask for that feedback, and listen when it is given.

4. Speak more softly and slowly – Yelling at people makes them feel bullied even if that is not your intention. When you get excited, lower rather than raise your voice. Keep in mind that the definition of what constitutes being yelled at is in the head of the “Yellee” rather than the “Yeller.” (My apologies to “Old Yeller”).

5. Ask for opinions often – Managers who seek knowledge, as opposed to impressing their brilliance or agenda on others, have less tendency to be bullies.

6. Think before speaking – Ask yourself if this is the way to gain real commitment or just temporary compliance. Is it good for the culture?

7. Reduce the number of absolutes you use – Saying “You never do anything right” cannot possibly be true. Soften absolutes to allow for some reason.

8. Listen more and talk less – When you are shouting at people you cannot possibly hear their rationale or their point of view. Hear people out; do not interrupt them.

9. Don’t attack or abuse the weak & Don’t be a “Steamroller” – Just because you know an individual is too insecure to fight back is no reason to run over him or her. It only reveals your own weakness.

10. Write your epitaph – Regarding your relationships with people close to you, how would you like to be remembered after you are gone, or even tomorrow?

Supervisors must recognize that when they are bossing people around, they are really working at cross purposes to the culture they would like to have in their area. It takes effort to retrain yourself to avoid bully-like behavior if you have been practicing it since you were a child. Following the tips above is a good place to start changing.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Why Some Bully Managers Last

July 5, 2014

aggressive businessman bullying colleaguesA student in one of my graduate leadership classes posed an interesting question. If bully managers cause so much grief, why are so many of them allowed to remain in power?

The question got me thinking of the many reasons bully managers, even the extreme ones, seem to hang onto their positions. Here are some of the reasons.

1. Weak Leadership Above – If a bully manager is allowed to remain in place, it means the leaders above him or her are not doing a good job. If those in charge look the other way while a manager is abusing people, then they are the real culprits.

It is rather easy to spot a bully manager when doing a 360 degree review process, so once one is identified, if the person is allowed to stay in a management position year after year, I blame the top leadership.

Also, weak leadership might look the other way because the bully has powerful allies. Bully bosses intimidate people at their own level and higher in the organization. They know the buttons to push or people to pressure in order to get their own way. If a weak leader is afraid of the bully, that can be a reason this person is allowed to continue.

If the bully is the top dog and not beholden to anyone, there is no force from above to curtail the negative behaviors. In this case, barring some kind of epiphany, the bully will keep on with the same conduct until he or she leaves.

Attempts from below to enlighten this person will usually be fruitless; they may even exacerbate the problem.

2. Sufficing –

A bully manager does elicit compliance because people are fearful. The unit reporting to this manager will perform at a credible level, even though people are unhappy and underutilized.

The crime is that the unit could be so much better, and the lives of the workers could be richer if the manager was replaced by someone with higher Emotional Intelligence.

Many units get by sufficing on a culture of compliance and avoidance and do not even realize the huge potential they are missing.

3. Being Clueless –

I have written on this before. The idea is that most bullies simply do not see themselves accurately. They would view themselves as being tough or having high standards of conduct.

My observation is that most bully managers are genuinely proud of their prowess at getting people to behave. They have no impetus to change, because their twisted logic reinforces the behaviors that elicit compliance.

They often view themselves as smarter than the people working for them and bark out orders because they sincerely believe they know best.

Another clueless possibility is that the entire corporate culture is stuck in this Ebenezer Scrooge mentality.

Hard as it is to fathom, there are still old style companies where management likes to terrorize. The same holds for family businesses where one generation intimidates the next.

4. Lack of trust –

A bully manager trashes trust on a daily basis without realizing it. When trust is low, all other functions in the organization operate like a car would run on watered-down gasoline.

The irony is that when the bully manager sees things sputtering and not working well, the logical reaction is to jump in with combat boots on to “fix” the problems.

That bullying behavior perpetuates the problem in a vicious cycle of cause and effect. If there is no external force to break the cycle, it will just continue.

5. Short term focus –

Most bully managers have a fixation on short term actions and do not see the long term damage being done to the culture. They would describe “culture” as some squishy concept that is for softies.

If you propose ideas to improve the culture to a bully manager, he or she will start talking about performance and accountability. Holding people accountable is a very popular phrase in management these days.

Imagine a world where there was less need to talk about holding people accountable because the culture they worked in was one that automatically extracted their maximum discretionary effort.

If the vast majority of workers in a unit habitually performed at the very peak of their potential because they wanted to, then accountability would take care of itself.

6. Lack of skills –

Bully managers often have not had good leadership capabilities built in through training and mentoring. You cannot blame a tyrant if he or she has never been shown a better way to lead.

Bully managers are often accused of having a “my way or the highway” attitude toward people, but I would contend that many of these misguided individuals simply feel “my way is the only way I know how to get things done.”

For these leaders, some intensive reprogramming can be an effective antidote only if they come to the table eager to learn new ways.

7. Fear means people will not challenge –

Most workers are not going to be willing to challenge a bully boss. The fear of getting their heads chopped off for leveling with the boss makes the prospect of telling the truth feel like knowingly walking into a lion’s den.

Every once in a while there is a person so foolish or confident that he will just walk into the lion’s den because there is little to lose. This person can help provide shock therapy for bully leaders by providing data on how the behaviors are actually blocking the very things the leader wants to accomplish.

These people might be called “whistle blowers” because they provide an errant manager, or the leadership above, with knowledge of what is actually happening.

Occasionally, a bully manager is so extreme that he or she must be removed and replaced by a more people-oriented manager. Unfortunately, it is also true that many bully bosses have the ability to remain in place for long stretches.

This adhesion to power is extremely costly to the organization in terms of current and future performance along with a prime cause of high turnover. If you have a bully manager reporting to you, get him or her some help through training.

If that does not work, move the bully out of a leadership role and put in someone with high Emotional Intelligence.


The Wimpy Boss

November 20, 2011

I have written about bully bosses a couple of times, but I never addressed the other end of the spectrum – wimpy bosses. While not as obnoxious as a bully boss, the wimpy boss can be exasperating in different ways. Let’s look at some of the characteristics of a wimpy boss and follow up with some tips in case you happen to be paired up with one.

I am reminded of the cartoon character “Wimpy” in the Popeye Cartoon, (I know I am dating myself – and as Groucho used to say, “If you’re dating yourself, you aren’t likely to have many children”). Wimpy was famous for the line, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” That characteristic of postponing things is one of the hallmarks of a wimpy boss. Regardless of the issue, there are some bosses who do not want to face making a decision, so they ask for more analysis or more time. Eventually people get the message that there isn’t going to be a firm answer.

Another trait of a wimpy boss is that the person will not stand up for people who work for him or her. If upper layers of management perceive an individual incorrectly, the wimpy boss is going to be a “yes man” and not challenge the misconception.

Wimpy bosses do not hold firm to decisions made on principle. They bend with the breeze coming from on high and waffle when asked to take a stand on issues involving integrity. They are like chameleons and change colors to blend in with the background.

When a person is abusing other employees, the wimpy boss does not step in with strong action to stop the problem. Instead, problems are allowed to fester and well up because the boss has no strength or backbone.

What can you do if you have a wimpy boss? That is a really good question, because you are not likely to change this person. The weak habits are a form of self preservation, laziness, or just plain being gutless. No amount of coaching is likely to reverse a lifetime of bad habits in this area. If you are reporting to a wimpy boss, the best you can do is document your requests carefully and make sure you copy others, such as senior management or HR in on your requests.

Make sure the need for decisions have a date fixed to them and that a large number of people are aware of the delivery date. If needed, send reminders a reasonable time before the due date.
If you see some signs of strength emerging, reinforce the boss enthusiastically for taking action. It will serve to encourage stronger action in the future.

Lastly, training can help a wimpy boss learn how to handle difficult situations and also make more firm decisions. You may not be in a position to nudge the boss directly to get some training, but there could be indirect ways to let it be known that some additional seasoning would be beneficial. Each organization will have a different political hierarchy that includes not only the wimpy boss but also that person’s peers, manager, HR, and the Development Group. As an underling to a wimpy boss, you need to be careful how and when you point out opportunities for improvement.


Tyrant or Bully?

September 11, 2011

If you had to give one adjective to describe your boss, which one would you choose? Many people would select a positive adjective such as benevolent, caring, trustworthy, empathetic, passionate, or loyal. Others would choose a more neutral word like efficient, logical, helpful, kind, or fair. Still others (perhaps too many) would use an extremely negative word like demeaning, overbearing, spiteful, hypocritical, tyrant, or bully. In this article, I wanted to put the last two words under the microscope and examine what they mean and how leaders can take steps to avoid being viewed as either one of these adjectives.

In contrasting the two words, let’s first look to the dictionary. Here are the official brief definitions:
Tyrant – cruel or unjust ruler.
Bully – one who hurts or threatens weaker people.

The two concepts are not the same for sure, but they do overlap. It is easy to think of a leader who is a tyrant as someone who is also a bully. Can you imagine any tyrant who is not also a bully? I cannot. Likewise, a bully may or may not also be a tyrant. Most of us would agree that too much of a tendency in either of these directions will lead to low motivation or fear among the workforce.
The distinction in my mind is that a true tyrant needs to rule the roost, but a bully can be satisfied just pushing people around mentally or physically. The bully does not need absolute control to do his or her damage. In the everyday exchanges between people, the bully simply fails to take the feelings of others into account and insists on his or her way. The bully resembles a bulldozer and has a distorted mental image of what it is to be a leader. The bully feels superior to the “little people” and is convinced he or she is justified in pushing through the chosen decisions. Reason and analysis are generally not accepted by the bully.

If you have a boss who is either a tyrant or a bully, which one is easier to change? Changing the mindset of a tyrant is nearly impossible. It would take a life-changing event or some kind of miracle to reverse the aberration. Reason: the tyrant simply has no inclination to change and will not do so unless dethroned by edict or coup. The bully may be more curable by reasoning that often this person is operating at cross purposes to what he or she really wants to achieve (I will use the male pronoun for the remainder of this article to simplify the text).

In the workplace, the bully boss pushes people around as an expedient to get things accomplished without having to explain, rationalize, or debate. The bully also has a habit of blustering at people in order to get them to back off. Often, this pattern is a carryover from playground encounters as a child. The bully who has perfected his methods has an easier time in life at the expense of others. The impact of working for a bully boss usually leaves people in a state of very low motivation. This means that the more a boss bullies people, the less cooperation he will get, and eventually his goals will be compromised. If you can get a bully to recognize that he can get more of what he wants by taking a different approach, then you might have a more coachable person.

The most a bully can expect to get is tepid compliance, when to do well in this environment, any boss needs passionate enthusiasm. By training the bully to change his approach to people, we actually can educate him that there is a better way to get what he really wants in the long run. Sure, for the bully, being more participative may not be as much of a sport, but if it ultimately means more money in his pocket, there may be impetus to change.

If you work for a tyrant, chances are this person is also a bully. You can gain on the situation by helping the bully side become less dominant. That is real progress, and when the bully sees the positive changes in attitudes and improvements in productivity that accrue from reform, it may go a long way to softening the tyrant inside. It is a kind of momentum that can take over. When the bully really understands that a better existence is possible, changes in behavior follow easily. If you reinforce the new behaviors and ascribe them to the boss’ different habits, then he is likely to want more of the benefits, which will result in lower tendency to be a tyrant.


7 Reasons Bully Managers Last

May 29, 2011

A student in one of my graduate leadership classes posed an interesting question. If bully managers cause so much grief, why are so many of them allowed to remain in power? The question got me thinking of the many reasons bully managers, even the extreme ones, seem to hang onto their positions. Here are some of the reasons.

Weak Leadership Above – If a bully manager is allowed to remain in place, it means the leaders above him or her are not doing a good job. If those in charge look the other way while a manager is abusing people, then they are the real culprits. It is rather easy to spot a bully manager when doing a 360 degree review process, so once one is identified, if the person is allowed to stay in a management position year after year, I blame the top leadership.

Also, weak leadership might look the other way because the bully has powerful allies. Bully bosses intimidate people at their own level and higher in the organization. They know the buttons to push or people to pressure in order to get their own way. If a weak leader is afraid of the bully, that can be a reason this person is allowed to continue.

If the bully is the top dog and not beholden to anyone, there is no force from above to curtail the negative behaviors.  In this case, barring some kind of epiphany, the bully will keep on with the same conduct until he or she leaves. Attempts from below to enlighten this person will usually be fruitless; they may even exacerbate the problem.

Sufficing – A bully manager does elicit compliance because people are fearful. The unit reporting to this manager will perform at a credible level, even though people are unhappy and underutilized. The crime is that the unit could be so much better, and the lives of the workers could be richer if the manager was replaced by someone with higher Emotional Intelligence. Many units get by sufficing on a culture of compliance and avoidance and do not even realize the huge potential they are missing.

Being Clueless – I have written on this before. The idea is that most bullies simply do not see themselves accurately. They would view themselves as being tough or having high standards of conduct. My observation is that most bully managers are genuinely proud of their prowess at getting people to behave. They have no impetus to change, because their twisted logic reinforces the behaviors that elicit compliance. They often view themselves as smarter than the people working for them and bark out orders because they sincerely believe they know best.
Another clueless possibility is that the entire corporate culture is stuck in this Ebenezer Scrooge mentality. Hard as it is to fathom, there are still old style companies where management likes to terrorize. The same holds for family businesses where one generation intimidates the next.

Lack of trust – A bully manager trashes trust on a daily basis without realizing it. When trust is low, all other functions in the organization operate like a car would run on watered-down gasoline. The irony is that when the bully manager sees things sputtering and not working well, the logical reaction is to jump in with combat boots on to “fix” the problems. That bullying behavior perpetuates the problem in a vicious cycle of cause and effect. If there is no external force to break the cycle, it will just continue.

Short term focus – Most bully managers have a fixation on short term actions and do not see the long term damage being done to the culture. They would describe “culture” as some squishy concept that is for softies. If you propose ideas to improve the culture to a bully manager, he or she will start talking about performance and accountability. Holding people accountable is a very popular phrase in management these days. Imagine a world where there was less need to talk about holding people accountable because the culture they worked in was one that automatically extracted their maximum discretionary effort. If the vast majority of workers in a unit habitually performed at the very peak of their potential because they wanted to, then accountability would take care of itself.

Lack of skills – Bully managers often have not had good leadership capabilities built in through training and mentoring. You cannot blame a tyrant if he or she has never been shown a better way to lead. Bully managers are often accused of having a “my way or the highway” attitude toward people, but I would contend that many of these misguided individuals simply feel “my way is the only way I know how to get things done.” For these leaders, some intensive reprogramming can be an effective antidote only if they come to the table eager to learn new ways.

Fear means people will not challenge – Most workers are not going to be willing to challenge a bully boss. The fear of getting their heads chopped off for leveling with the boss makes the prospect of telling the truth feel like knowingly walking into a lion’s den. Every once in a while there is a person so foolish or confident that he will just walk into the lion’s den because there is little to lose. This person can help provide shock therapy for bully leaders by providing data on how the behaviors are actually blocking the very things the leader wants to accomplish. These people might be called “whistle blowers” because they provide an errant manager, or the leadership above, with knowledge of what is actually happening.

Occasionally, a bully manager is so extreme that he or she must be removed and replaced by a more people-oriented manager. Unfortunately, it is also true that many bully bosses have the ability to remain in place for long stretches. This adhesion to power is extremely costly to the organization in terms of current and future performance along with a prime cause of high turnover. If you have a bully manager reporting to you, get him or her some help through training. If that does not work, move the bully out of a leadership role and put in someone with high Emotional Intelligence.


Three Tricky Questions About Trust

March 27, 2011

In my leadership classes, I often like to pose three challenging questions about the nature of trust. As people grapple with the questions, it helps them sort out for themselves a deeper meaning of the words and how they might be applied in their own world. The three questions are:

What is the relationship between trust and vulnerability?
• Can you trust someone you fear?
• Can you respect someone you do not trust, and can you trust someone you do not respect?

I have spent a lot of time bouncing these questions around in my head. I am not convinced that I have found the correct answers (or even that correct answers exist). I have had to clarify in my own mind the exact meanings of the words trust, vulnerability, fear, and respect.

Before you read this article further, stop here and ponder the three questions for yourself. See if you can come to some answers that might be operational for you.

Thinking about these concepts, makes them become more powerful for us. I urge you to pose the three questions (without giving your own answers) to people in your work group. Then have a quality discussion about the possible answers. You will find it is a refreshing and deep conversation to have.

Here are my answers (subject to change in the future as I grow in understanding):

1. What is the relationship between trust and vulnerability?

Trust implies vulnerability. When you trust another person, there is always a chance that the person will disappoint you. Ironically, it is the extension of your trust that drives a reciprocal enhancement of the other person’s trust in you. If you are a leader and you want people in your organization to trust you more, one way to achieve that is to show more trust in them. That is a very challenging concept for many managers and leaders. They sincerely want to gain more trust, but find it hard to extend higher trust to others. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “It is better to trust and be disappointed every once in a while than to not trust and be miserable all the time.”

2. Can you trust someone you fear?

Fear and trust are nearly opposites. I believe trust cannot kindle in an organization when there is fear, so one way to gain more trust is to create an environment with less fear. In the vast majority of cases, trust and lack of fear go together. The question I posed is whether trust and fear can ever exist at the same time. I think it is possible to trust someone you fear. That thought is derived from how I define trust.

My favorite definition is that if I trust you, I believe you will always do what you believe is in my best interest – even if I don’t appreciate it at the time. Based on that logic, I can trust someone even if I am afraid of what she might do as long as I believe she is acting in my best interest.

For example, I may be afraid of my boss because I believe she is going to give me a demotion and suggest I get some training on how to get along with people better. I am afraid of her because of the action she will take, while on some level I am trusting her to do what she believes is right for me.

Let’s look at another example. Suppose your supervisor is a bully who yells at people when they do not do things to his standards. You do not appreciate the abuse and are fearful every time you interact with him. You do trust him because he has kept the company afloat during some difficult times and has never missed a payroll, but you do not like his tactics.

3. Can you respect someone you do not trust & can you trust someone you do not respect?

This one gets pretty complicated. In most situations trust and respect go hand in hand. That is easy to explain and understand. But is it possible to conjure up a situation where you can respect someone you do not yet trust? Sure, we do this all the time. We respect people for the things they have achieved or the position they have reached. We respect many people we have not even met. For example, I respect Nelson Mandela, but I have no basis yet to trust him, even though I have a predisposition to trust him based on his reputation.

Another example is a new boss. I respect her for the position and the ability to hold a job that has the power to offer me employment. I probably do not trust her immediately. I will wait to see if my respect forms the foundation on which trust grows based on her actions over time.

If someone has let me down in the past, and I have lost respect for that person, then there is no basis for trust at all. This goes to the second part of the question: Can you trust someone you do not respect?

I find it difficult to think of a single example where I can trust someone that I do not respect. That is because respect is the basis on which trust is built. If I do not respect an individual, I believe it is impossible for me to trust her. Therefore, respect becomes an enabler of trust, and trust is the higher order phenomenon. You first have to respect a person, then go to work on building trust.

People use the words trust, fear, respect, and vulnerability freely every day. It is rare that they stop and think about the relationships between the concepts. Thinking about and discussing these ideas ensures that communication has a common ground for understanding, so take some time in your work group to wrestle with these questions. I welcome dissenting opinions on my thoughts here because I am eager to learn other ways of thinking about trust.