To Build Trust, Competence is Key

In our last blog , we discussed the importance of trust. It’s the foundation of all you do as a leader and manager. Your ability to influence others, which is your fundamental task, begins with people’s willingness to be influenced by you. And their willingness begins with their trust in you — their confidence that you will do the right thing.

We ended that blog by noting the two key components of trust — competence and character — and promising to explore each in subsequent blogs. This post, then, is on what it means to be competent as a boss.

That final phrase — “as a boss” — is critical because all trust is contextual. What’s expected of you will depend on the setting, circumstances, roles, and expectations of those involved. Thus, as a boss, you need to know not just what to do and how to do it, but also how to get it done in the organization and the world where you work. We’ve labeled these three elements of competence technical knowledge, operational knowledge, and political knowledge.

Technical knowledge covers what you need to know, not only about the work performed by your unit but also about the basics of management. If you manage a group of stock brokers, you need to know SEC regulations, as well as something about the financial products your group sells. If you manage a group of mechanical engineers, you need to have a good grasp of mechanical engineering. You needn’t be the expert — a trap many managers fall into, especially those who excelled as individual contributors — but you need to know enough to make good decisions, set intelligent priorities, and offer useful guidance. In addition, competence as a boss requires knowledge of management fundamentals. Your people expect you to know how to plan, evaluate performance, and delegate, to name some key management functions.

Operational knowledge might be called “practical” knowledge. It covers not what but how you and your group do what you do. You may understand capital budgeting because you took a course in it, but you still must know how it’s actually done in your company — the steps involved, who must approve, and the tests to be met. You may understand the concept of delegation, but you still may not know how to do it effectively in daily work. Technical knowledge will get you a good grade on a test, but you need operational knowledge to do real work. Even for work done not by you but by your people, you still need operational knowledge. Otherwise, you won’t understand what they actually do, what support and resources they need, or what you can expect of them.

Political knowledge is the knowledge required to get anything done in a political environment, such as the organization where you work. You may understand capital budgeting, and you may know how it’s done in your organization. But getting what you need also requires political knowledge — an understanding of how to justify your capital request in ways most likely to succeed in your organization. For example, you might tie it to one of the company’s highest strategic goals or link it to a group that is currently a management favorite. Is this “playing politics”? Not if it’s done for worthwhile organizational ends, rather than personal or parochial purposes. Political knowledge is what you need to exercise influence effectively in the political environment that exists in all organizations. Your people expect this of you. Otherwise, you and they will never get the resources and attention you all need to do good work. If you’ve ever worked for a powerless boss, you understand how and why people’s trust in you as a boss depends in part on your political knowledge.

You ultimately build people’s trust in your competence through your accomplishments over time — through the knowledgeable decisions you make, your practical understanding of how work actually gets done, and your ability to get the organizational resources needed to do good work. Nothing in the long run can overcome a deficit of accomplishment.

But along the way you can foster trust in your competence through some simple actions:

Talk about the why and how of decisions you make and actions you take. Don’t be mysterious. Be open in your choices. That way, people will see your knowledge and understanding even before any results come in. In other words, adopt a practice of explaining yourself. It lets others see what you know and how you think.

Involve others in the way you manage. Invite people’s participation in decisions and the resolution of group issues. Use their technical and operational knowledge. You retain ultimate responsibility, of course, but giving people a say allows you to incorporate their competence into your own. They will worry less about what you yourself know if they’re confident you will take advantgage of what they know.

Ask good questions that reflect real understanding of the work and its purposes.

Don’t try to fake knowledge. If you claim or assume knowledge you don’t really possess, those who truly know will see through you instantly. Ask for clarification. Admit ignorance and ask questions that will help you learn. Admit mistakes, as well, and talk about what you learned from them. Demonstrate a willingness, even an eagerness, to learn.

Don’t try to be the expert. It’s almost always an impossible goal for a manager, and inevitably it will lead to dysfunctional competition between you and your people.

Above all, be honest with yourself about what you know and don’t know. If you lack important knowledge, learn it as quickly as you can. Ask an expert on your staff to tutor you, for example. We know managers whose ability to influence their people went up when they admitted what they didn’t know and asked for help learning.

Competence is critical for building trust, but by itself is not enough. What you do with your smarts — your intention — is just as important, and that’s character, the topic next time.


Linda Hill & Kent Lineback

Linda Hill & Kent Lineback

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Kent Lineback spent many years as a manager and an executive in business and government. They are the coauthors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader

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