Leadership: Trust but Verify

leadersWhen coaching leaders about “trust,” I often find myself using the phrase “trust but verify.” It turns out to be a good way to hold people accountable as well. It’s the reason KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) exist– to verify and measure that things are getting done.

Without these forms of verification or measurement, it’s hard to know anything for sure. I have a lot of leaders tell me they have good intuition and “can just tell” when being told the truth or a lie. In some cases, this is very true, however, there is always someone that gets by even the best of human intuitions. Yours truly has been fooled more times than I would like to remember, and I would guess that most leaders have a glaring exception to their intuition they can recall as if it happened yesterday. In hindsight, it’s always easy to say, “I should have seen that,” but in the moment it can be difficult to spot.

The question becomes what KPIs are in place to know that someone is telling us the truth and/or that we should trust them? First, we have to watch their actions more closely than their words. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt that what they say they will do is what they actually do. However, I am watching to see how closely reality comes to what they said or committed to. My cynical side says that we all lie occasionally, but our perception of what constitutes a fib, a white lie, or a whopper are all different. Today, our political dynamics show that outright lies are shrugged off as no big deal. My problem with that is when someone has shown that they play with the truth so loosely, how can you count on anything they say? Again, my recommendation is the KPI, verifying an actual result would say this person’s behavior was or was not consistent with their words.

Frequently, my conversations with executives go something like this, “Yes, I spoke to X and they seemed very sincere and I think they are on the right path now.” When I ask if they have documented the conversation, most often it is no. When I ask if they let this person know that there will be consequences for further exhibits of the said behavior, most often the answer is no. There is an abundant amount of “hope” that the person will get better and what they said was true. But the two-way street says you need to be very explicit about the behavior you want and the consequences that will follow if it is not shown. 

As a leader, you should trust those who work for you and with you. However, trust is not blind. Open your eyes and watch the behavior that follows the words to verify that what you think is happening, really is happening. Your team also needs to know that you, as the leader are trustworthy, that means always doing what you say you will do.