For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don't do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer's tool chest - ourselves.

Do you trust your management?

No, this is a serious question. Without trust in management, it's extremely hard to get anything accomplished. If individuals don't trust management, there's no way for individuals to raise issues that management needs to know about and take action on. Management learns quickly not to trust the individuals, including their estimates and assessments, and before long, the entire office resembles a Dilbert cartoon on a bad day.

Being trustworthy as an individual is more of a moral, ethical and philosophical discussion, and often involves questions of concepts like “personal honor” or honesty, and so on. For many folks, that's between themselves, the mirror, and maybe a religious figure. In some ways, the calculus is simple: being trustworthy on an individual level is about not breaking the trust others (including your manager) place in you.

But what about when you become the manager? Particularly when you're now in charge of your former team?


Let's face the elephant in the room head-on: It can be exceedingly awkward to be placed in charge of the people that used to be peers. Where before you could sit in the break room and complain about the silly decisions and clear cluelessness about those above you on the org chart, now, well, now you're one of them. And the rest of your peers aren't. In fact, you're now the one directly above them on the org chart, and that means if the team is going to go on sitting in the break room complaining, they're going to be complaining about you. (And that doesn't even consider the possibility that there may be team members who competed for the position that you now hold, and who now may, at best, think that the company made a mistake hiring you instead of them, and at worst, resent you for it.)

It's in your best interest to gain the trust of your team as quickly as possible, because without that trust, things could spiral out of control.

But trust is one of those things that's easier discussed than done. How, exactly, does one create trust?

According to a Linda Hill (a Harvard Business School professor) and Kent Lineback (an executive coach), trust is made up of two principal components.

Trust: Character

Character is a measurement of your values as a person and as a manager. Are you out for your own gain or are you out to make things better for your team? Are you there to improve the fortunes of the company at the expense of your team? Do you genuinely care about the team and the people on it? If the team suspects that your interests are more selfish than selfless, they'll quickly figure out that they can't trust you.

Your character will be on display through your actions - more specifically, how well your actions align with your stated values. Ask questions. Be respectful. Invite feedback. Keep your emotions in check no matter the situation. Give others the spotlight when credit and kudos are going around.

For example, one of my subordinates managing a team in my group came to me with a proposal. We're in the home stretch of a big software release, and he thought the team might be more successful if we set aside our two-week sprint cadence in favor of a more Kanban-style approach until we hit the ship date. Hmm. Interesting proposal: We don't really need the sprint opening and closing ceremonies because we've locked in everything on the backlog, and bug fixes don't really fit well into a story-based format. On the other hand, this represents a new change, and changing things up right before a period of stress is not always a good idea. Hmm. Which way do I decide to go?

One of the values that I've stressed to my managers and the teams they manage is that of autonomy (one of the ARC triple, from the “On Motivating” article a while back). I want my teams to have the authority, with my support, to figure out what works best for themselves, and make their own decisions. I'm also aware that it can be easy to stay silent when presented with a plan that everybody thinks is a good one, and I didn't want anyone to feel steamrollered into going along with a plan that they didn't believe was viable. It's important, too, that the team have a good working rapport with their manager, and if this plan doesn't work, I want the blame, if any, to fall on me.

Given all that, my response was this: “Let's ask the team.” I sent an email to the team, saying that the manager and I had been discussing this plan (notice, I give no credit to whose idea this is - if it's good, it was my subordinate's idea, and if it's not, it was mine), and I wanted the team to give me explicit reasons why it wouldn't work. Note that I don't “ask for their thoughts.” I specifically want dissent on the plan. This way, if anybody offers up such, it's not because they don't believe in it, it's because I asked for it.

For the record, we're still in the home stretch, but the team took to the decision quickly and easily, and several of them have commented that they find this approach to be working well for us. The jury's still out, but I think my subordinate's plan was a good one.

Trust and Competence

The other thing the team will be watching is how well you understand their business. For a software development team, this is obviously the part where they will be judging how well you understand the practice of writing software, but it's going to be more than just knowing how to use the language or the platform. It's going to be a measure of how well you understand the processes involved, and how the project fits within the “big picture.”

It's also going to be about how well you can deliver as a manager, too. How well can you eliminate the obstacles that the team faces? If the team wants to get desktop computers on which to do development because the laptops are too wimpy to handle all the simultaneous services that need to be running, can you get them? If the team wants to reorganize their workspace, can you get the office team to go along with the idea? When the team scores a win, can you get upper management to recognize the win, so your team can get the kudos they deserve?

That all seems like a tall order and it is. But like any sports team coming from behind, you don't have to score big entirely on one play; start with some “quick wins” with the team. Find a policy that's entirely under your control that the team dislikes, and adjust or correct it. Figure out what the next roadblock will likely be, before the team hits it, and start working on getting it out of the way. If the team wants to move to a more DevOps-ish approach, talk to the Ops team and get their perspective on the idea. Talk to Ops folks about why you want your team to go down this path, and what benefits it provides to them. And be honest! If you don't know something, ask. Most importantly, don't be afraid to be wrong. In fact, you encourage a great deal more faith within the team by admitting that your ideas could be flawed. Encourage dissent, and react to it - change the plan in response to feedback. Nothing will encourage the team's trust in you more than when you take their thoughts and opinions seriously and incorporate that feedback.

Above all else, be honest with yourself: It can be painful to accept feedback, and it'll be particularly hard to take what you thought would be a “quick win” and discover that it's not anywhere close to “quick” or “win”. Don't panic! At no point will your character and competence be more on display than when things start to go wrong, and it's a golden opportunity to show the team that you value feedback and encourage correction than when you take that feedback and correct yourself. Your personal and professional ethics will be on display every day as a manager, and although that can feel pretty vulnerable at times, at others, you'll be surprised - pleasantly so - when the team responds positively to those ethics and starts incorporating it into their own decision-making process.

Trust is a hard thing to earn, but once given, it can make all the difference between being the butt of the Dilbert cartoon and the team that everybody wants to be on.