Trust is lost through inconsistent behavior

Getting back to projects, people fracture trust when they behave randomly or unpredictably. When someone consistently takes action without regard to her commitments, she creates waves of concern and worry that disturb the team. Energy is taken away from people who have to work (or contend) with her. Instead of applying their energy toward completing work, they now have to expend energy calculating whether she will actually do what she says she will. Contingency plans have to be devised, and levels of stress and doubt rise ("If Marla doesn't get that code checked in by the end of today, we're hosed."). The more careless someone is with the responsibility she has, the larger the waves will be.

One interesting (albeit painful) story about failed trust involves one of my former managers. I was a program manager working with five programmers and testers, and we got along well. Jake, the team lead, was my manager and had authority over me and several other PMs. The problem was Jake's habit of changing his mind. For example, he and I would discuss big decisions I was making that needed his support. We would come to quick agreement on the best approach. But then as soon as we entered a meeting where strong personalities or people with equal or more seniority than Jake disagreed with him, Jake, in dramatic fashion, would cave in (he did this about one-third of the time, but I never knew which third). He'd run the other way and agree with whatever decision was popular.

I remember standing at the whiteboard during meetings, halfway through explaining my plan A, when he'd agree to someone's suggestion to go with plan B. I'd stop and stare at him, amazed that he could do this without feeling a thing. Had he really forgotten? Was he this much of a brown-noser? Was he unaware of what he was doing to me? Or was this weathervane-like behavior (following the wind of the room) really beyond his control? I didn't have the skills then to sort it out, and I wasn't savvy enough to talk to others about the behavior I experienced, so I suffered. My workouts at the gym were never so good.

Eventually, I tried discussing this behavior with him. I also documented decisions we'd made as soon as we made them (email is good for this), and I used them later on as reference. I even went so far as to prep him right before meetings. But all this only made for minor improvements (instead of supporting plan B, he'd just stay out of the discussion, but not help with plan A). I soon found myself working around him. I'd go out of my way to have things decided in meetings without him present. By comparison, it was less work and more effective. This created other problems on our team (and with my relationship with Jake), but I was able to manage my areas and get things done.

The sad thing was that Jake was smart, and fun to work with. But because I couldn't trust him, it didn't matter. He would have been more useful as a manager if he were less smart, but twice as trustworthy. We certainly would have made better products, and I would have spent less energy managing him and more energy helping the team.

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