How to Have a Conversation with Your Direct Report to Improve Accountability

In supply chain, decisions around profit, process and product can be relatively easy. It involves making rational decisions based on stable and predictable empirical evidence. But where it gets tricky is making decisions involving people.

Developing and progressing people – the company’s culture – is always difficult. Humans are complex, unpredictable and emotional. Some are even downright unmanageable.  We each have different emotional triggers and ranges in behaviour. Yet, without people – profit, process, and product don’t mean anything.  We can’t get them to work without people.

Why people decisions are often problematic is that at its core it involves trusting people to do the right thing. This occurs in the part of the brain that processes emotions, such as trust and loyalty. This area has no capacity for language and explaining its decision. It operates subconsciously and only understands emotions. This means when employees trust leaders about a new change, it’s based on feelings.  In other words, how they feel about whether leaders and the company will do the right thing by them. The answer to that is determined by past experiences and beliefs. Throw in some risk and uncertainty and that decision can be tricky to predict.

Leaders also fall into the same trap when making decisions about who they can rely on. Their emotions unknowingly get in the way so they make judgements based on incorrect assumptions, past experiences or blind hope.  If these decisions are frequently wrong, the leader might retreat and believe only they can do the work.  All this does is lead to exhaustion and cynicism about others.

What I have found is that most leaders don’t even know where to start building trust with a poor performer. They waste countless hours and resources avoiding the issue or trying to fix it. Sometimes out of sheer frustration it all gushes out in an incoherent mess during the annual performance review.  Of course, that only creates more distrust and fractured work relationships.

Managers typically waste massive amounts of money, time, energy, and resources in order to fix these issues. And while these problems can seem tedious or frustrating the true costs of people problems are far more troublesome.

According to research by Tania Menon and Leigh Thompson cited in Harvard Business Review, executives estimate failure to give underperforming employees feedback wastes an average of around $7,600 per day. That’s an astounding $1,976,000 of lost value and potential per year per organisation on one common people problem alone.

No wonder that more than 30 companies on the Fortune 500 have all abandoned annual performance reviews. Adobe, IBM, GE and Amazon found that performance reviews reduced morale and weren’t actually improving performance. Instead, these companies now encourage leaders to undertake more frequent feedback conversations.

Leader as Coach

If leaders want to succeed they have to know how to get the best out of people. It’s about coaching rather than managing. It’s about having regular feedback and performance conversations to improve behaviours. It’s about ensuring that both the leader and employee trust each other to perform.  For many, these chats are difficult and often end up being confrontational (thereby reducing trust and cooperation).

What leaders need to focus on is having conversations that connect to people’s emotional, feeling based brain. This doesn’t mean actually talking about trust in general terms. After all, talking about trust doesn’t build trust. If anything it makes people defensive. Instead, you have to talk about what specific behaviours are required and how that benefits the team, yourself and the employee themselves.

So how do you do that?

Through using a trust battery metaphor. This is what Tobi Lütke, chief executive of Shopify, a fast growing Canadian e-commerce company has done to improve employee performance. It works beautifully because metaphors are more easily understood by our emotional brain. After all, we can all comfortably explain and understand when the trust battery is depleting and when it is charging. We can even point to a diagram and explain what step change we require rather than saying “You have lost my trust.  What are you going to do about it?”

So how does the trust battery work?

By explaining to employees that the trust battery compares the current level of trust between two people.  Every time you interact with someone trust is either recharged or discharged. When the trust battery is high and has a lot of power – work gets done easily and efficiently.  When the trust battery is getting flat – cooperation is low and misunderstandings reign.

Let’s take a new starter as an example. Realistically, they subconsciously don’t trust their boss and as the boss, you don’t trust them. To be fair to both of you, sit down with them and explain the trust battery concept and why it’s charged at 50 per cent.

This involves mentioning that neither of you are really sure if you can trust each other yet. But you are willing to support them and give them the benefit of the doubt. Over time, if your interactions are positive, the battery will charge up. Importantly, you explain what exact behaviours are required to build trust and what will drain trust. You can also turn it around and ask them what they expect from you to charge their battery. The conversation must explicitly discuss their role, accountabilities and expectations. Any confusion will cause them unnecessary anxiety.

For example, one of my new team members let me know during the trust battery discussion that I had to give her time to understand things and to trust that she would get it right eventually. This frank discussion on her first day of work really helped me support her in ways that got her up and running faster than previous hires. It was also a good reminder to me to not assume people learn things as fast as I do and fall into a distrust and frustration trap.

Now, let’s consider a long-standing colleague that you have worked with for two years. Over that time you have shared both positive work and personal experiences. They have demonstrated that they are supportive, capable and reliable.  Here the trust battery is quite different and sits at a high 95%.

If they start to act differently, the high trust reserves act as a buffer. Trust will drain more slowly than if this person was new or always unreliable. For example, you’ll think “Stephanie isn’t herself lately. I wonder what’s going on. I’ll check in to see if she’s okay.”

The effort of actually checking in with her actually builds more trust. As Stephanie can see that you care about her as a person, not as a productivity tool.

On the other hand, if it’s a relationship that has a history of challenging behaviours – trust reserves are low. When issues pop up, trust drains rapidly. “Damn that Stephanie. She never tells the truth and she’s lazy and bad at her job. She will never improve. It’s time to fire her.”

You can use the trust battery metaphor for those work relationships that you have forgotten to nurture. Batteries left idle decline over time. It’s the same with relationships. You have to be proactive about charging up trust levels, otherwise, the relationship will lose capacity and power.

The trust battery metaphor also works in and between teams. Using a metaphor approach helps bridge the discussion between harmful behaviours and actions pivoting everyone to the right page to get results.

Charging Up Trust

As a supply chain professional, with so many different relationships to nurture and build, using language that clears up issues reduces a lot of frustration and unnecessary costs.

Successful organisations rely on dependable working relationships. Followers depend on leaders. Leaders depend on followers.  The marketing group depends on manufacturing and so on. A good leader is one who trusts people and whose people trust them in return. This means they know how to make the right decision on whom they can depend upon to get work done because they know how to talk about the tricky stuff.

Being honest about everyone’s strengths and weaknesses is critical to a high trust culture. Using the trust battery metaphor, helps leaders and employees break down barriers in their communication. It encourages leaders to more readily articulate their expectations and reduce ambiguity. And it helps employees clearly understand how they need to perform.

More importantly, it allows people to talk about trust in a way that doesn’t make the other person feel criticised. It’s actually quite fun and disarming to talk about work relationships – what’s working and what’s not – referencing a battery. Give it a try – you’ll be surprised by how much it powers up your work relationships.

Marie-Claire Ross
Founder and Chief Trustologist

Marie-Claire Ross is the founder and chief trustologist at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author and consultant focused on helping leaders accelerate trust during change and growth. If you want to find out how well your organisation or team excels at trust, try a complimentary assessment at