For People to Trust You, Reveal Your Intentions

In our last blog, we discussed the importance of competence for fostering the trust you need as a manager to influence others. We stressed that management competence includes not just technical knowledge of the work but operational and political know-how as well.

Here we want to focus on the other great component of trust — character — but by taking a different approach.

Think of the most chilling villain you've seen in the movies, the one who shows up in your nightmares, the one you would avoid at all cost if he really existed, the one, in short, you absolutely cannot trust. We don't know what villain comes to mind for you, but one of our most memorable is Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, played by Anthony Hopkins. Lector is a genius, especially at reading people's minds; in other words, he's super competent. Whatever he sets out to accomplish, we're confident he knows or will figure out what to do and how to do it. Think about that. An idiot villain would be a joke. That's why serious villains are virtually always highly capable: Darth Vador (Star Wars), Dr. Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes' archenemy), and one of our favorites, Magua (the embittered Huron warrior played by Wes Studi in Last of the Mohicans).

But what makes these characters so frightening isn't just competence. That forces us to take them seriously; it makes them compelling. But, for the most part, competence is neutral. What truly chills us, what virtually defines villains, are their evil intentions. Their purpose is to do harm. What they seek to do with their competence is what terrifies us. Intentions are the heart of what we call character — the values, norms, goals, and priorities that drive someone's actions and choices.

Our visceral reactions to villains illustrate an important point — that our feelings about someone, whether we fear or trust them, are largely determined by their intentions. By divining what they want, we answer the question we all instinctively ask about someone new: ally or enemy? Intentions are how we distinguish a villain from someone whose influence we accept, whom we move toward. Competence may be appealing, but intentions are what attract or repel us and foster trust or mistrust.

Thus, if you want to lead and influence others, you must reveal your intentions. People won't believe you will do the right thing unless they're convinced you genuinely want to do it.

That requires more conscious effort than most bosses understand. We all more or less assume that others will see our positive motives or at least give us the benefit of the doubt. But it often doesn't work that way. As a leader and manager, you must often make tradeoffs among the competing interests of your own group, other groups, the organization as a whole, important outsiders, and the individuals who work for you. That obviously creates many opportunities for people to misinterpret your intentions.

That's why it's often critical to take conscious and purposeful steps to reveal your motives and values and to open yourself so others can see inside you. Here are three important ways to reveal your intentions and convince others of their sincerity.

1. First, talk explicitly about your intentions — what's important to you, the goals you seek, the values and motives that guide your actions and decisions. Talk as well about the sources of your intentions — the experiences that forged them. When you do something or make a choice, explain both the business and personal reasons. Don't assume people will see them. Say them outright. Invite a discussion of them.

This sounds easy, but many managers resist the idea that the boss must stoop to explain himself. Being the boss, they think, means not having to do that. But if they want to generate the kind of trust that gives them real influence and elicits the best from their people, they will talk about their intentions. This is important because intentions often aren't obvious, and they're always open to interpretation — especially, as we said, in a complex setting like work. So relying on others to guess what's in your head and heart is, at best, a problematic way to produce the outcome — trust — that you want.

2. The second way to reveal your intentions is through integrity. Walk the talk. Keep your word. Be sure that what you say is consistent with what you do. This will prove your authenticity. If you tell people to be open to new ideas, but you're not, they will doubt what you say. If they don't understand or believe your intentions, how can they trust you to do the right thing?

3. The third way you reveal your intentions is through consistency. The intentions you speak about and practice should be the same from day to day, from person to person, from situation to situation. If they're not, and there's no reason for the difference, your lack of consistency will lead people to doubt you as well. If there are differences, be sure to explain them. Be sensitive to how others see and interpret your reasons for what you do.

So far we've argued that intentions — character — are the foundation of trust, that they must be supported by competence, and that you must take pains to reveal them. But we haven't addressed the question of your intentions themselves. Does it matter what your intentions are?

Yes, of course it does. We don't trust anyone simply because they have clear intentions. Otherwise, we'd trust Hannibal Lector and other villains. People trust us because we have the right intentions, which are those intentions people accept and agree with.

What are "the right" intentions? That's not an easy question to answer, especially for a boss, and it's the subject of our next blog.

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