One Question, Two Meanings
“Do they know who I am?”
There are two ways to ask this question. There’s the perhaps more common, self-focused, often self-righteous way: “Do they KNOW who I AM?!”
This way implies they should know, whoever “they” are…and moreover, they should care. They should defer; they should give me what I want.
Then there’s the way we want to write about today. It’s other-focused and curious about “their” perspective. It’s a genuine inquiry into whether I have fostered a human-to-human connection by revealing who I am as a person.
Especially at work, we sometimes shy away from revealing our true fears, concerns, joys, and passions. We worry that showing our true selves might make us vulnerable.
In fact, the opposite is true, as a client of ours recently shared. By revealing who she was—including her worries and fears—she built trust with two direct reports with whom she’d previously had a strained relationship. From that trust came improved team performance.
Here’s what happened.
How One Manager Built Trust by Getting Personal
Regarding her relationship with two members of her team, this manager related, “I always felt I was doing my best but couldn’t get through to them. I was so afraid of stepping on land mines that I did not visit their offices as often as I should have.” She kept them at an arm’s length, justifying this choice by telling herself she didn’t want to make waves where there was already tension.
Through her work with Arbinger, this manager began to get curious about her two reports’ perspectives. Looking at it from their point of view, she realized they could tell she was uncomfortable. Worse, she saw that the distance she’d put between herself and them was creating more mistrust, rather than keeping things calm as she’d hoped.
This manager understood that to strengthen her relationship with these two individuals, she needed to connect with them on a personal level. She decided to spend a few hours with them, intentionally being more open than normal. She noted, “I wanted to get to know them better.” She took the time to learn about them—not only about their roles and how their section operated, but also about their personal lives.
The results were inspiring. The manager reported, “Boy, did they respond to that. Once they could see that I wasn’t putting up walls and feeling ‘worse than,’ they worked with me. I actually enjoyed being around them and working with them!”
Personal Connections Breed Long-Lasting Trust
This initial connection sparked a true and lasting change in the relationship between the three people. The two direct reports started being far more helpful in their work, going out of their way to help the manager succeed. One of the individuals even voluntarily took on one of the manager’s tasks when she was out of the office for a few days.
And while the manager was out of the office (at an Arbinger workshop where she was presenting material), the two direct reports “both texted and called me to make sure I was okay at nearly every break!”
Critically, the manager stayed open and human in her interactions with them. “I didn’t put up a front. I was open with them and told them what I had questions about. In return, there was no condescension from them. They actually cared about my success.”
Afterward, the two direct reports were comfortable enough to send the manager a congratulatory message and certificate. The manager reported, “They said they were impressed with how well I did. It meant a lot to them that I actually learned how to run the place and cared about what they do every day…I’m sort of blown away!”
By seeing these direct reports as people, this manager came to understand that keeping her distance was creating mistrust. She was able to take her reports’ perspective and realize that openness and vulnerability were key to a strong relationship with these individuals. They responded to her new approach with incredible care and generosity: her outward mindset invited their outward mindset.
We encourage you to try a similar approach in your relationships. Rather than worrying about showing weakness, share your worries, questions, and fears. It will humanize you…and you might be surprised by how much people want to help!