A common catchphrase in today’s workplace is “You did (or didn’t) have my back.” The very nature of our public sector work means that our actions are on display for everyone. Even the slightest hint of disagreement can be perceived incorrectly between fellow team members. When that happens, the trust between co-workers can suffer long term consequences. When these “moments of truth” occur on a frequent basis, as they do in a municipal setting, the risk of damaging relationships occurs so often that we need to take steps so that we can withstand these potentially damaging circumstances.
I have experienced both of these situations. Once a department director of mine was getting grilled by a council member about a routine contract renewal. Although I was new to the city, I was familiar with the issue, and the director felt that the conditions for renewal were appropriate, so we did not discuss it much in advance of the Council meeting. When it got to Council, it was obvious that this particular council member had held some grudges over the previous decision and was inferring that the director was less than forthcoming in his answers, when in my experience the answers made perfect sense. I respectfully intervened and explained that I was familiar with contracts of this nature and that the department head was correct. With that assurance, the Council approved the contract.
The next day, the department head thanked me for having his back. I did not think that I had done much, but other department heads recounted similar experiences with the Council. I explained to my staff that the better they briefed me on important subjects, the better I would be able to support them in similar circumstances. That incident became a turning point for me and my new staff.
I have also had unfortunate experiences in which I did not immediately jump to a staff member’s defense for one reason or another. The result was a noticeable change in my relationship with that staff member, with long lasting consequences in some cases. Both situations showed me the importance of developing and maintaining trust in my employees, and them in me. Continuous discussion, critiquing these situations, and learning from them are key in handling these moments of truth.
As managers of change, it is important that our team members share mutual trust to take us through tough times. Recognizing these moments of truth and reinforcing that trust can go a long way to developing a supportive environment to implement important changes in our organizations. Do not take that trust for granted, it is too valuable.