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Trust the problem or Trust the person?

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Pat Quinn with Shane Doan on the cover of one of the 5 books we have written.

Trust the problem, fix the person?


Trust the person, fix the problem?

Pat Quinn was the final coach I played for, during my last two NHL seasons. Pat allowed me to hit the 1003 NHL games played mark (I am so thankful), and Pat encouraged my growth as an informal leader on that team. I have great affection for Pat, who has since passed, and huge admiration for the philosophy that Pat actively implemented throughout the culture of our Vancouver Canucks team.

Pat‘s foundational philosophy focused on increasing and implementing trust throughout the organization. Trust was the word that Pat used, but I have come to realize that his key word actually originated within a deeper philosophy that he held about people.

Every time I walked into Pat Quinn's office, the plaque on the wall told me everything I needed to know about Pat's people-philosophy. It read: "A FAILED PROJECT IS NOT A FAILED PERSON!"

Over my past 25 years of coaching and growing leaders, I have noticed that every leader makes multiple choices, multiple times per day. Among those choices, leaders

must choose their people-philosophy, either to trust the person or trust the problem.

trust the problem, fix the person


trust the person, fix the problem

Leaders tend to be problem-solvers who expect their people to bring them multiple problems to be solved. Trusting in the leader's ability to solve the problem can make people feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are untrustworthy and need upgrading or fixing. Every leader that we have ever worked with knows that people don’t like to be fixed, but many don’t realize that they are nevertheless sending a “you need fixing” signal to their people when they solve their people's problems for them.

Alternatively, leaders who increase their people's metacognition (thinking about their thinking) by not providing solutions, but instead, asking probing questions as a way to give their people opportunities to discuss, think through, and independently solve their problems, positively reframes this situation in two important ways:

1- Leaders cement their philosophy that people are valuable. They see the Future-Positive in their people.

2- Leaders choose to reframe issues and problems as coaching/learning opportunities. They help their people see these Past or Future-Negative problems through a learning or risk assessment frame.

Both instances of reframing implement and secure the philosophy that people are important and that leaders can trust their people to build Future-Positive plans that fix Past-Negative and Future-Negative problems.

Leaders who choose to trust the problem & fix the person, frame their people as sub-par and their problems as proof that they are sub-par, propagating a negative-trust cycle. Great leaders see great futures for their people and in their people. I agree with this definition of leadership: "Great leaders journey their people towards their better future."

In our experience, high functioning leaders, teams, and cultures learn the valuable lesson of developing practical ways to trust their people, especially early in the relationship. The choice between trusting the person and fixing the problem or trusting the problem and fixing the person, will differentiate between high-trust/high-speed or low-trust/low-speed work teams.

Yes, trust can be earned, but I am suggesting that trust is a leadership choice, and that “trust can be given first.” We have a client who places this concept of "trust first” as one of their top five company values! The leadership philosophy of, "I will trust our people when they become trustworthy," while practical, inevitably slows down the performance speed of your team. The timing of when leaders trust can be a game-changer in the engagement and development of high performing people.

Employees working for companies ranked in the top 25% for trust report:

  • having 106% more energy on the job

  • having 76% more engagement at work

  • having 50% more productivity

  • being 50% more likely to stay with their employer over the next year

  • feeling 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose

  • feeling 66% closer to their colleagues

  • feeling 11% more empathy for their workmates

  • being 41% less likely to depersonalize coworkers

  • experiencing 40% less burnout from their work

  • feeling 41% more accomplished

Paul J. Zak in his book The Neuroscience of Trust says, "In my research I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference." The neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public. Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence.

...occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers... Sounds like what we do in our game!

We intuitively implemented such a developer of trust when I was honoured to lead the off-ice Abbotsford Heat Hockey Team. While I was President of that team, we structured a weekly Tuesday morning meeting to honour one of our people who had implemented what we called, "The Heat's Incredible Guest Experience." Our intense focus was developing multiple ways to treat our clients/fans with such a positive guest experience that they had no choice but to return, and to tell others.

We used a hockey helmet to celebrate our people's success at those Tuesday morning meetings. Each Tuesday one member of our off-ice team would tell a positive story describing how a fellow employee had positively impacted the experience of our fans. The recipient would be applauded and handed the Heat Helmet which they would autograph, and place on their desk for the coming week.

Here is the helmet that was given to me as a parting gift, just before the team moved to Upstate New York:

Researcher Paul Zak suggests that "recognition" is one of the key strategies for increasing people-trust across your team, and I agree. We like to call this Past-Positive Thinking.

Your leadership challenge:

trust the problem, fix the person


trust the person, fix the problem

How will you increase your trust in people by accelerating the way you celebrate them?

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