News and Comment

How can managers keep trusting each other in tough times?

Thursday 21 October 2010

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Having to make 25 per cent cuts is enough to put a strain on relationships in any management team, and in this kind of situation ensuring good levels of trust between leaders is all important. In this post, OPM’s principal for local government, Sue Goss, pinpoints the key ingredients of maintaining trust within councils working through difficult times.

The realities of relationships between leaders when the going gets tough

Having worked with the top leadership teams of politicians and managers across a range of local authorities, I’m beginning to see how hard trust is to sustain when anxieties run high. We often work hard on ways to build trust, but as I re-read the text books on ‘trust’ I realise that we are often trying to build the wrong sort!

The management books refer to two important sources of trust: integrity and competence. Both are important. I might consider someone to be honest, but be doubtful about their ability to, for example, take my appendix out safely if I didn’t also trust their competence.

But integrity and competence are not enough on their own. I’m discovering that tension between members and officers leads to  managers feeling that their integrity or their competence is doubted, when actually the source of the problem is different.

The scale of the financial cuts that councils are now facing makes it almost impossible for politicians to simply trust managers to make the right decisions. The political risks are too great. And both officers and politicians worry that others don’t see the whole picture. As one deputy leader said to me ‘the danger is we will prefer to cut the things we don’t understand, because the things we do understand we want to protect.’ And if each portfolio holder or manager only sees part of the picture, they will tend to be defensive and suspicious, with politicians wondering if officers are ‘hiding’ resources, and managers wondering what part of ‘25 per cent cuts’ the politicians don’t understand!

Things are made harder when councils change hands politically, or where leaders or chief officers are relatively new and relationships are still being formed. Ironically, transitions between administrations can sometimes be too smooth, so that officers simply continue working to the meeting structure, agendas and even priorities formed by a previous administrations without stopping to redesign decision-making spaces, to rethink priorities and to build a new shared understanding.

A different sort of trust is needed, but how to create it?

So the third sort of trust needed in these difficult times is trust in a shared project, and this can only be built by thinking and working together. It’s not enough to stop after the first few hazy flipchart notes about ‘future vision’. A vague commitment to ‘greener environment’ or ‘empowering communities’ will not be enough to guide future action in these challenging times. The leadership team of members and officers needs to build trust in shared judgements about the balance to be struck between conflicting objectives, and the actions that need to follow.

One approach that has worked is for the leadership team to take time out to explore how a specific proposal to redevelop a site or to share services or to merge a library with a children’s centre would really work in practice. In a safe experimental space, the team can work together to understand the obstacles, and find solutions. This is not because in future every real decision needs to be worked through in such detail, but to learn about how each member of the team thinks, to understand the perspective they contribute, and to recognise where they can add value. That way, managers can begin to understand the political sensitivities and dilemmas, while politicians can begin to see the practical problems that managers are encountering.

When pressures mount, the temptation is to move faster, to pile more items onto agendas, to rush to even more meetings. But to get to a really good shared understanding takes time and patience. Some of the problems faced are so difficult that they will take the very top brains of the organisations hours and hours, often days, to think through properly. Setting that time aside now might make all the difference between success and failure.