Project Management Institute

A matter of trust




QUESTION: I've just been accused of micromanaging my project team. I know it's true, but having been burned a couple times recently, the idea of just blindly trusting my people seems a bit naïve. Yet I know I can't lead without delegating and I can't delegate without building trust. Any thoughts?

Few words get tossed around more blithely than “trust.” But as you have learned the hard way, trust of the wrong people at the wrong time can lead to some pretty traumatic outcomes. So it's prudent to start by having a clear idea of precisely what we mean by trust.


Behavioral scientists have long used the word “readiness” in this context of trust and delegation. They refer to two characteristics of followers: their willingness and their ability. To be worthy of trust and delegation, both conditions need to be fulfilled.

It sounds like the thought process every parent runs through before tossing the keys to the family wheels to their 16-year-old. And just as with your kids, you need to know your people well enough to make this assessment: Are they willing and are they able?

Even when you pass that first hurdle, you aren't done. Prudent parents make their trust conditional, at least initially. My wife always had our kids come in and kiss her good night when they got home. I was touched by this sign of motherly love, even though being awakened at 1:00 a.m. could be mildly annoying. Years later, she confessed that while all that maternal affection was well and good, the real reason for the mandated kiss was to serve as a sort of parental breathalyzer.

One of U.S. president Ronald Reagan's most famous quotes captured this “show me” attitude perfectly. At the 1987 signing of an arms control agreement with the then-Soviet Union, he described the need for verification of compliance by all the treaty's signatories. A master of symbolism, President Reagan chose a Russian proverb to make his point: “Trust, but verify.”

One insightful summary of trust comes not from behavioral scientists or professional philosophers but rather from a former university president. Brother Raymond L. Fitz, an engineer by training, served 23 years as the president of the University of Dayton. Brother Ray, well-known as a model of moral leadership, uses a three-part paradigm.

Before we give our trust to people, Brother Ray says we need to ask three questions. First, do they have integrity? Are they honest, and have they demonstrated truthfulness, openness and candor in the past? Obviously, these characteristics are necessary for trust, but they alone are not sufficient.

Thus, the second question: Are those to whom we would give our trust competent in the areas in question? We usually prefer to use more global evaluations such as “Is he a good guy?” or “Has she been a good performer?” But such generalities, even if accurate, tell us little about their ability to handle the specific situation at hand.

Brother Ray modestly tells me he doesn't have many original ideas. But it's his crucial third question that I have never seen elsewhere: Are we confident that these candidates for our trust will consider and fairly represent our interests, and the interests of our institution, at least as diligently as they do their own?

Whether considering the people who would lead us or those we are privileged to lead, it's clear there can be no effective leadership without trust. So if these same principles work for skeptical mothers, renowned world leaders and respected university presidents, they are good enough for us as well. Pick the right people, understand their attitudes and abilities, let them earn our trust over time and verify as appropriate. PM

ANSWER: It can be hard to decide when to trust and delegate, but it is possible through picking the right people and allowing them to demonstrate their ability over time.


Bud Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Please send questions for Ask PM Network to

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