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How to build a more trusting environment for creative teams

Jason Gitlin

July 18, 2022

When it comes to inspiring people to stay present and motivated, trust is a talent magnet. People don’t leave jobs; they leave managers. Research even bears this out. According to a survey by Gallup, 50% of employees have quit a job to get away from a manager who makes them feel undervalued or stressed out.

Looking back on my career, the times when I have felt lost and uninspired have been when I’ve suffered bad management. Working with managers who didn’t respect my individuality didn’t just deflate my motivation, it affected my physical health — to the point that my personal physician advised me that the best treatment for a stress-related ailment would be to find a different job.

When I became a creative director, my experience guided me away from what had pained me about managers in the past. And over time, I’ve focused on relationship building with my direct reports and team members. Instead of “I’ll tell you what to do,” it’s “let’s figure out how best to get this done together.” I check my ego at the door and remember that the power of individuality is key. By respecting the individuals who report directly to us and partner with us across the agency, we can create the kind of work environment people look for and don’t want to leave.

What happens when a workplace lacks trust?

The lack of trust in the workplace has been exacerbated in the past two years thanks to the collective turmoil we’ve all faced. This continued level of uncertainty and anxiety has significantly impacted how managers lead — and how they need to lead into the future.

Some stereotypes about leadership no longer hold true. The “just get it done” attitude still exists in many workplaces, but in practice, a leader who couldn’t care less about each individual will quickly alienate the team as a whole and create an environment of hostility. Stress has been high these past two years, and as stress levels rise at work, we need more understanding and more empathy rather than more urgency.

Being a good manager today is not just about scheduling and managing workloads; it’s about the way things feel. Some people thrive on stress. Some people need time to reflect. Others need their own unique mixture of those two modes. Leaders who can let go of their ingrained biases — like the idea of working until you drop — will be able to push their creative teams forward.

This is easier to say than to do, sure. Acknowledging personal biases is difficult. Experiences are key to developing truthful narratives, but developing narrative empathy and understanding your audience beyond your personal experience takes work. And that requires openness, cultural respect, and the willingness to identify where your biases might get in the way of the best new idea.

What are some strategies for creative teams looking to build trust?

How can we accept uncertainty and embrace individuality to fiercely lead our teams into a new, more diverse, and more accessible world of work? That is becoming a more and more important question every day.

Here are some of the most important strategies that will lead to a more inspired, trusting environment:

  1. Active listening. Good communication builds trust and motivation and can empower individuals to find their own way to belong in your organization. Good communication means not just talking but listening. Employers need to think beyond making demands and instead ask questions to guide team members to make their own conclusions and take their own initiative. A safe space creates an environment where talk flourishes, mutual feedback can be given, and individuals can show up for one another.
  2. Careful engagement. Many leaders assume they know what their employees need. Once hired, workers are left to carry out their job descriptions, and can quickly feel underappreciated and disconnected from the values of the organization. Creative management is all about engagement. Show people that you’re interested and invested in their working lives; show up for important moments and check in with them. And if you’re working in a hybrid or remote way, you need to take extra care to engage and pick up on nonverbal cues over video and in the tonality of text messaging.
  3. Take supportive action. Listening and engaging are vital, but don’t be scared to take action, too. Act in support of your team and what you think is right. Great action starts by being accountable — know your values, know how you will live them, and what you will do if you need to protect or defend them. When it’s time to help employees with work projects, actually help. Talk to the larger team, get more time if you need it, and narrow the approach. Take action.
  4. Trust your team. Creating a trusting environment starts with you as a leader. Work on your own trust before you expect others to trust you. How much do you trust your team? Could you empower them more often to take initiative, decide things themselves, and lead the way? Trust your team members, and they’ll be more willing to show up with their whole selves at work. Trust also means respecting who your employees are as individuals; you may not always understand or agree with their way of doing things, but trust means accepting that they bring more to the table than you can alone.

There’s no “I” in trust, but your team is only as strong and inspiring as its Individuals (emphatically with a capital I). Respect and honor the fierceness of the people who make up your team, take action for them, and together, you’ll create an atmosphere of trust (and unlimited creative potential) in your workplace.

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