Achieving Trust With Intent-Based Leadership

This year, I was fortunate enough to attend Agile 2017, an important conference organized by Agile Alliance, in Orlando, Florida. Amongst all the conference presented, I mostly focused on the ones that discussed teamwork, collaborative work and leadership, topics that interest me as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach.

One word came up again and again throughout multiple conferences: Trust. The first main conference by David Marquet, a formal nuclear submarine captain in the American army and author of the book Turn Your Ship Around!, start the week off with a bang. On stage, Mr. Marquet talked about the importance of trusting your team as a leader. The leadership model developed by Mr. Marquet is called Intent Based Leadership. This style of leadership consists in giving control, rather than taking it. In the military, this goes against tradition (“Soldier, do not question orders!”), but Mr. Marquet noted that his approach was advantageous for several reasons, one of which was that it facilitated the emergence of natural leaders.”

Intent-Based Leadership creates an environment in which individuals can contribute more, making them feel appreciated and encouraging them to reach their full potential. According to Mr. Marquet, one easy way to use Intent-Based Leadership is to modify the vocabulary being used within your team, which in turn can have a tremendous impact on the work being done. Mr. Marquet recommends eliminating passive words and replacing with them with active terms. For example, the formulation “I intend to” encourages ownership and can transform passive members of your team in leaders. Other terms Mr. Marquet encourages you to phase out include:

-Can I have the permission to…

-What should I do about…

-Can we…

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These sentences can be replaced with formulations such as:

-I intend to…

-I plan to…

-I will…

-We will…

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This approach will encourage your team to “think out loud”, allowing you to guide their intentions in a direction that will allow your team to reach its goals.

Why trust?

Why do leaders like David Marquet insist so much on the important of trust within teams? To answer these questions, let’s take a step back.

According to the first of 12 principles from the Agile Manifesto, the goal of an Agile team is to deliver business value to the client quickly. To provide value quickly, we’ll need to be able to count on teams that are performing at a high level, which usually means a team that is engaged, as its almost impossible for a team to perform at a high level if its members aren’t engaged. Of course, we can’t force team members to be engaged. What we can do, however, is to put into place conditions that encourages and fosters engagement and active participation from team members.

What is trust ?

Brené Brown, a professor, researcher in social sciences and renowned speaker, shared the results of her research as part of her conference The Anatomy of Trust. According to Mrs. Brown, trust is composed of 7 elements, which can be remembered with the help of the acronym « B.R.A.V.I.N.G. »

-Boundaries: Respect my boundaries, and if you’re not sure whether something is okay or not, just ask. You have the option to say no.

-Reliability: Do what you said you were going to do. At work, this can mean being realistic about your abilities and limitations so that you don’t create false expectations.

-Accountability: Take responsibility for your errors, say you’re sorry and try to do better.

-Vault: Do not share information or experiences that you’re not allowed to share. I need to know that stories I tell you in private remain private.

-Integrity: Choose courage between comfort. Choose what is right before what is fun, quick or easy. Don’t just preach your values, make sure you actually act accordingly.

-Non-judgment: I can ask what I need from you, and you can ask what you need from me. We can talk about how we feel without fearing judgement.

-Generosity: Always give others the benefit of the doubt.

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How do we create trust ?

Personal experiences have taught me that an engaged team is also a team whose members trust one another. To foster trust, we need:

1- A non-hostile work environment

Do work conditions allow people to perform at a high level? Do they trust the company? Do they spend too much energy protecting themselves from each other? A non-hostile work environment that’s safe psychologically allows people to show vulnerability, take risks, make mistakes and better navigate conflicts. In the long run, it means more transparency, closer relationships, better collaborations and, in the end, better results.

Conversely, an environment that’s hostile and unsafe psychologically raises stress levels, encourages bad behaviors, prevents problems from being solved and kills creativity. To establish psychological safety, we need to be inclusive, eliminate fear of failure, delegate responsibilities clearly, make yourself available, encourage people to ask questions and be ready to own up to our mistakes.

2- The ability to take decisions

According to David Marquet, the industrial revolution has created two types of work: Red Work and Blue Work. Essentially, Red Work involves reducing variability, allowing individuals to execute precise tasks while also minimizing errors. Conversely, Blue Work embraces variability. It’s a type of work that requires reflection and requires decisions to be taken according to various factors.

To foster trust, people must be allowed to make decisions. According to Mr. Marquet, organisations can perform better by transformations their doers into thinkers. Therefore, we gain from giving teams the freedom to make decisions autonomously. An easy way to establish these permissions is to a Delegation Board.

3- The right vocabulary and language

As mentioned above, the language teams use is very important. For example, if certain team members use “them” instead of “us”, it can be a sign that they don’t feel engaged. The tone and vocabulary used also play an important role. It’s usually a good idea to use positive terms, which can promote and reinforce good behaviours. By encouraging transparency, sharing and construstive comments, we can foster trust which will motivate and inspire the members of our team.

To ensure our team members stay motivated, it can be useful to keep in mind the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt presents a behavioral model that explains human beings have two sides: one that’s emotional/irrational/impulsive (The elephant) and another that’s analytical/self-controlled/rational (the rider). Therefore, we can’t address only one of the two sides. We have to find the right balance between both and know which side is the dominant one depending on the personality type of the person we’re speaking to.

This metaphor was made famous by Chip and Dan Heath in their second book, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard. They also added a third aspect to this model, a situational/directional/environmental component (the road that the elephant follows).

If we only talk to the elephant and there’s no rider, the elephant will eventually go off track. If we only talk to the rider, the elephant will lose the motivation to continue moving forward. Team members who aren’t engaged is an elephant problem.

Achieving trust

Trust fosters engagement, and an engaged team is usually a team that performs better, meaning it’ll be able to deliver more value to the client. Askida understands that trust is one of the basic components of a high-performing team (and company). Every day, we do our best to make trust an important part of our development practices, our relationships with our clients and our commitment to excellent software quality.

It’s no coincidence that our slogan is Achieving Trust!

Bonus : A simulation game to both entertain you and make you think: The Evolution of Trust.

Image Maël Rieussec

Maël Rieussec

Maël Rieussec est un Coach Agile chez Askida // Maël Rieussec is an Agile Coach at Askida