What smart managers know about the power—and fragility—of trust

In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss how news managers might cultivate trust with editorial teams, honor business metrics alongside societal impacts, and galvanize newsroom collaborations.

Kyle: I’m interested in the blowup at the startup site The Markup and the apparent clash between news and business/management.

It seems that in this climate for the news business, neither side can be siloed, both need to work together. But it has historically been hard, and it remains so. What have you noticed about news organizations that bridge that gap best?

Jill:  It’s time for us to talk about trust, Kyle. The answer to your question and to the news/business challenges depend on it.

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Ethical leaders can make it work, but it doesn’t mean the journalists they manage aren’t skeptical and often suspicious of their supervisors’ multiple obligations. When decisions are made, are managers wearing the right hat? Are they doing something for the good of the story or the community? Or is this really about making a budget number or hitting some strategic metric?

And when they have to carry out the challenging tasks of management—holding people accountable, making changes in roles, enacting or enforcing policies, creating or ending projects—the staff is also evaluating them. Are they doing it with skill, integrity, and strategic vision? Or are they blundering and bulldozing their way through peoples’ work lives?

Even respected veterans like Susan Zirinsky, whose promotion to president of CBS news was roundly cheered by staff, now faces the minefield that comes with restructuring. Even though it’s obvious that ratings must improve, leaders are scrutinized and second-guessed when they start making changes.

Disruption creates plenty of discomfort, especially in the short term. That’s why building a reputation for trust is essential for managers. It allows them to say: What I’m doing won’t make everyone happy right now, but you know what I stand for. Even if you don’t fully believe, how about suspending disbelief as we roll out this plan?

If you have been clear about your values and people have seen them in action, your social capital pays dividends.

Things are even more challenging when the people putting plans together are in startup mode, like The Markup, and taking on new roles, responsibilities, and relationships. I have no inside knowledge, but it’s clear that, at some point, trust broke down among that leadership team. Or maybe it never fully existed.

In the absence of trust, daily interactions are often seen through a dark prism of negative intent.

  • Are we having meetings to share info and build team cohesion, or are these command performances and time wasters?
  • Are we keeping a spreadsheet of job interviewees to ensure transparency, diversity, and fairness, or is this someone’s flawed rubric, designed to produce a predetermined outcome?
  • Was I assigned a coach or told to read management literature because you really want to help me fill some performance gaps, or are you gaslighting me to make it seem that I’m deeply flawed?
  • Are you suggesting a new role for me because of an objective assessment of my strengths and weaknesses, or is this a power play to undercut my authority and autonomy and to get me to quit?

In the healthiest newsroom cultures, people at all levels assume that building and sustaining trust is a priority, and they act accordingly. They emphasize communication, especially the “why” of decisions; they listen; they tackle conflicts early; they apologize; they give the benefit of the doubt; they don’t hold grudges. They don’t hesitate to ask, “What do you mean by that?” if they have doubts or concerns.

Trust scholars describe the highest form of professional trust as “identification based”—meaning, the reason I trust you isn’t because we have rules and you’d get caught if you break them, or because I know you well enough to predict you. I trust you because I look at you and see what I stand for. We share goals and values. We could speak on behalf of each other, and often do. And when we differ, we come at it from a place of respect and empathy.

Nothing makes a team run more smoothly, even when times are challenging, than an abundance of working relationships fueled by identification-based trust.

Kyle: Related to business and funding, we are all continuously looking for ways to measure the impact of what we do, beyond clicks or pageviews. It’s one thing to draw up a PowerPoint. But it seems to require a more comprehensive reassessment of how to measure journalism. How should we think about it?

Jill: Kyle, is this is your sneaky way of getting me to reveal the secret solution to journalism’s broken business model?

I swear on the abandoned, empty desks of laid-off journalists that I don’t have it—but desperately wish I did.

What I do know is that we must think about impact on two parallel tracks: business and society. When you create that PowerPoint, show them both.

Show our business impact, the kind that generates revenue. Show audience size, reach, and demographics. Display the time spent with us, the frequency of those connections, and the way we retain them. Track engagement with us. If we have it, show research about our earned loyalty—and, if we get it, tally up the memberships, sponsorships, or donations.

It’s your job to understand and take advantage of the best available metrics your organization has, and keep learning as new analytical tools surface that help us understand how our work succeeds and fails. That’s smart strategy, not pandering—if you do it right.

But always show our societal impact, too. Show the laws and lives that we helped change, the problems we helped solve, and the conversations we started in our communities. Share the important issues that we surfaced and the history that we documented. Display the portraits of the everyday citizens whose stories, well told, inspired others.

Let your final slide be one of those weird PPT animations that we’re not supposed to use because they’re so hard on the eyes. Make the business track disintegrate, and the societal track fade away. And when everything is gone, leave a barren background on which two words appear:

“News desert.”

Imagery aside, let me emphasize what I tell news managers everywhere: It’s your job to understand and take advantage of the best available metrics your organization has, and keep learning as new analytical tools surface that help us understand how our work succeeds and fails. That’s smart strategy, not pandering—if you do it right.

Your job is to be the translator of that data for your team so it helps inform and improve journalism. Once again, this is where trust comes in. When a trusted manager explains how metrics influence decision-making—and how they augment but never replace news judgment—journalists who’d rather avoid thinking about them are more likely to listen and learn.

Kyle: Finally, watching the announcement of the Pulitzers this year, I was struck again by the power of collaboration: nearly every winning entry involved a newsroom-wide effort, involving many, many people over many months. Yet most journalists I know are by nature lone wolves. What’s the best way to foster that kind of collaboration?

Jill:  Don’t you love seeing those newsroom celebrations, and the care everyone on the team takes to share credit with others? Once again, trust is at the core—and it starts with how the leaders of the project set the table for trust to be served up daily.

Few know that as well as Marina Walker Guevara, who coordinated what’s believed to be the biggest collaboration in journalism history.

As Deputy Director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Walker Guevara was the project manager for the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. She’s known for both her professional and her interpersonal skills.

Walker Guevara is in the current cohort of John S. Knight Fellows at Stanford, with whom I do a workshop each year to strategize their post-fellowship plans. When I told her I was working on this column, she was happy to share her insights. Here’s what I learned from our conversation that could apply to team efforts of any size:

  • Agree on the principles that will guide the collaboration, using simple language, not legal-ese.
  • Establish that sharing and reciprocity are the norm, not an option.
  • Make it clear that being an expert doesn’t give anyone permission to be a jerk.
  • Remember the importance of face-to-face communication, even when most of your correspondence is electronic.
  • Step in quickly when conflicts arise, and bring the parties together to communicate directly.
  • Stay close to people on the front lines of the stories, not just their managers. The ownership felt by ground-level journalists is critical to their motivation.
  • Be clear on how credit—from bylines to awards—will be determined.
  • Celebrate progress and wins while the work is underway.

Walker Guevara believes the person leading the collaboration must bring emotional intelligence to the work. Her advice demonstrates as much, but here’s one more piece of evidence: The title she adopts while at the helm of such massive projects isn’t director, manager or team leader. She calls herself the Collaboration Coach.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.