By Leah Fessler
Frances Frei, Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School, and formerly Uber’s first Senior Vice President of Leadership and Strategy, talks with Chief about what it means to elevate others by building trust. Frances is the co-author of Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, along with Anne Morriss.
Q. Before improving leadership we must understand what leadership is. What is your definition, and what’s the relationship between leadership and trust?
Frances Frei: We define leadership as making other people better first as a result of your presence, then into your absence. Leadership is not about us. It's about others. It's okay for others to need us in the beginning, but we know we’re done as great leaders when our team is better as a result of our absence. And when we talk about empowering other people, that requires trust. We’ve found that trust has three parts, each of which are actionable: authenticity, logic, and empathy. If you sense that you are dealing with the real me, that I am presenting you with rigorous and transparent logic, and that I am deeply in this work for you, then you are far more likely to trust me. If any one of these is missing, trust is the first thing to go.
Every leader is weak in at least one of these three areas — authenticity, logic, or empathy. We call that your “wobble.” To identify your wobble, think back on a time when you didn’t build as much trust as you were aiming to — whether at home or work. Then ask yourself: Did the skeptic person not trust you because they doubted your authenticity? Did they doubt your rigor and the transparency of your logic? Or did they doubt your empathy? It's going to be one of the three.
Q. What are some strategies to correct our trust wobbles?
FF: The easiest wobble to correct is logic. There are two types of logic wobbles — you lack rigorous logic (a substance problem), or more likely, you lose people in your communication (a style problem). The prescription for a substance problem is simply to focus on talking about what you do know well. If you are seduced into talking about things you do not know well, take space and go build up your knowledge before speaking publicly.
The prescription for the style problem is a bit more nuanced. Many of us have experienced making a point, no one listening, then moments later someone else saying the same thing and getting credit. Sometimes that’s because there’s bias in the room. But more often, it’s because we took people on a convoluted storytelling journey, and lost them along the way. The arc of our argument was an inverse triangle, with all the background narrative before we get to our actual point. The fix is simple — flip the triangle. Start by clearly articulating your point. Then you can go into the background. We’ve seen so many teams grow stronger with this simple flip — and so many marriages saved.
Q: How can you fix an empathy wobble?
FF: You can think of a meeting as a metaphor for all of your interactions. Within five minutes, an anthropologist could correctly identify everyone who has strong empathy in a meeting. The smartest people in the room are most likely to have an empathy wobble. Let me show you how this works. Imagine you’re one of these people. When the meeting starts, your engagement is sky high. But then it peeks well before the meeting ends — and plummets once you understand the point of the conversation. We can tell when you're flatlining, primarily because you start multitasking and look at your phone. That signals that you are not fully present to other peoples’ needs, and that you think you are superior. You are super clearly communicating that you lack empathy, which means I shouldn’t trust you.
To flip this, pretend you are a super smart, empathy-filled person. Your engagement in the beginning of the meeting is just the same, but towards the end of the meeting, it doesn't go down. It continues at a very high level until the last among us fully understand. The greatest definition of empathy is when we go from “I” to “we.” After you get it, as the empathetic leader, you’re actively invested in figuring out how you can be helpful and accelerate understanding for everyone present. When you get really good at it, you can pull forward the end of the meeting. When leaders embrace this empathetic approach, we’ve seen them cut meetings from 30 minutes to 10 just by being present to the needs of everyone at the table.
Q: Finally, how can you remedy an authenticity wobble?
FF: While uncommon, this wobble hurts those who are underrepresented the most — which makes it the most important to solve. If you sense that I am not being myself, you are not going to trust me. The solution seems simple: Just be you. That’s easy if you’re on a team where everyone is very similar to you. But if you represent any sort of difference — something I personally experience as a queer woman with strong opinions who prefers wearing men’s clothes — the prescription to “be you” can be really challenging.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to help every person in the room feel comfortable enough to avoid an authenticity wobble. Here's how you do that. First, despite whatever difference I'm bringing to the table, you have to make it safe for me. I can't make myself feel safe. Once I feel safe, it's important that I feel welcome. This is how inclusion happens, and it hinges on celebrating — rather than avoiding — the differences I bring to the table. We need to distribute praise for differences, not similarities. So instead of, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was going to say,” you should be saying, "Holy cow, that’s completely different than whatever I would have thought. I am so glad you're here." When difference is cherished, we find that what we have in common is the least interesting thing about us. That's when we reach all the way from safety to inclusion.
Originally Published June 22, 2020