Manufacturing Authority And Trust

TrustI’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, software development is about more than just processes and technology, there are always people involved. And whenever there are people involved, it makes everything a whole lot more complicated. No matter what position you’re in, manager, team lead, just a regular developer you will at one point need to negotiate, compromise, convince someone that you’re right, convince someone that they are wrong, convince someone that someone else is wrong, the possibilities are endless when you’re dealing with people. And I don’t just mean outsiders, the business, the stakeholders etc., you can often find more than enough of these kinds of situations within your very own team. So how do you make sure that your voice is heard, that your words are given the weight that they surely deserve (they do deserve it right?), how do you get your teammates, managers, customers to listen to you and give your opinions due consideration? There is no one sure-fire way, but it all hinges around two very important attributes:

  • authority
  • trust

Trust is when people listen to you and give weight to your opinion because they have a personal relationship with you. This relationship could be friendship, love or simply knowing that you won’t steer them wrong based on empirical evidence (i.e. you’ve come through for them in the past). Authority is when people perceive you to have some expertise, knowledge or power that they don’t have. You may be celebrated for your knowledge, or have the weight of experience on your side or simply have been placed in charge, regardless people will tend to defer to authority sometimes without even realizing they are doing so. So, in order to make sure you’re heard and listened to you need to get yourself either some authority, some trust or preferably some of both and there are three ways of doing this.

Have It

Authority and trust are funny in that they feed off each other. If people consider you authoritative then they will automatically tend to trust you more, it also works the other way, the more people trust you the more weight they will give to your opinion (i.e. you’ll be more of an authority in their eyes). So, the best and most foolproof way of getting authority and trust is to already be an authority. That may seem obvious, but don’t dismiss it, experts have it easy, so it may be in your best interest to try and get to that point.

Getting to the point where you’re considered an expert is hard work. You need to put yourself out there, be involved in the community, share your opinions, write, talk and get your face known by others. But once you do get there, no matter what situation you find yourself in, whatever you say will carry significant weight. You might be the newest person on a team with no domain or system knowledge, but people will still tend to give your views a lot of consideration. Picture this, you’re discussing some code design and Uncle Bob (Robert C. Martin) comes in and decides to weigh in with a few gems of his own, or perhaps you might be chatting about refactoring and Martin Fowler walks by and shares his thoughts, you will probably treat their views with a lot more consideration than you would if Joe Schmoe, developer from down-the-hall, said the same thing.

The best way to make sure you’re a heavy-weight in any discussion/negotiation is to actually be widely considered to be an authority on the subject. It doesn’t even have to be your main area of expertise a related field will do, true authority casts a long shadow.

Fake It

But what if you’re not yet considered an expert (you may be working your way up there but you’re not there yet)? You’ll still sometimes be the new guy on a team or find yourself negotiating scope (or whatever) with your customers. In this situation your best bet would be to rely on trust, as I said above, if people trust you they will automatically consider you more of an authority. However gaining trust is tough because it is a very time-consuming process. Building a relationship that results in genuine trust does not happen overnight, you need to work on it and give it time to mature. Once you do have it though you’re almost in as a good a position as if you were a genuine authority, people will listen to you because of the relationship you have built up with them. But, this does not help you if you’re the new guy or simply have not yet had time to build the necessary level of trust.

In this case you can try to fake some authority. I don’t mean you should lie and try to pass yourself off as an expert in an area you know nothing about, but the old adage does apply – fake it till you make it. If you’re already working on becoming an authority in an area you will have a level of expertise, you may not have universal recognition as yet, but it is possible to make people believe that you’re more of an authority than you actually are. You can point out some previous work you have done in the field, or highlight the recognition you have received before, the idea here is to simply make people aware of the fact that you know what you’re on about and that some other people know it too. Until your fame runs before you :), you will actually need to let people know that you have some knowledge in the area under discussion. If you do this right, people will give your words more weight, however if you do this wrong, people will tend to dismiss you as boastful and self-promoting. You therefore need to be very confident in your interpersonal skills before you go down the route of trying to artificially inflate your authority. So, if you’re not comfortable with it, don’t do it, there is another way.

Borrow It


Have you ever been to a conference or a talk where the material was to be presented by two people, one famous (i.e. someone you’ve heard of) and one not so much. You were probably attracted to the talk by the name of the more famous person, in your eyes they had authority so you wanted to hear what they had to say. But, when you actually went to the presentation, the material was almost fully presented by the less famous of the two people with the more famous taking a background role. Chances are you still enjoyed the presentation (people who have built up authority don’t tend to put their name on inferior material), but you might have been somewhat puzzled by why the famous person’s name was even on the material at all. You may have shrugged it off or had a chuckle about how the ‘celebrity’ was riding their fame and reputation (without doing much work). But, that was not at all the case. In reality the less famous of the two presenters was borrowing some authority from the more famous.

Chances are the two people presenting were probably friends or colleagues. The less famous of the two had something interesting to share, but knew that he was unlikely to attract many people (perhaps the material didn’t seem interesting until you dig into it), so he asked his more famous friend to share some of his authority to help attract more of an audience. In effect people came to see the celebrity but stayed due to the quality of the material. You can do the same thing in your day-to-day work and you don’t even have to be friends with any famous people. There are probably people you work with who have built up a lot of trust with others (e.g. they may have been working there a while and have a lot of great relationships). If you also have a good relationship with that person and need to convince some other people of something, it may be a good idea to borrow some authority/trust from your friend to help you. Perhaps you can ask them to be involved on your side or simply get them to introduce you, to get your presentation started on the right note.

If you’re new to a workplace, but were referred by a friend, it is a good idea to get your friend to introduce you around. That one gesture will help other people associate you with someone they already trust/like, some of this will be transferred to you which means you will start to form great relationships with your teammates much faster (think of it as a kind of shortcut) and start building some trust of your own.

The lessons here are as follows. If you want your opinions to always have genuine weight in any discussion related to your field, then you need to work on building your authority in that field. Until others begin to recognize that you really know what you’re talking about you will need to make sure they are aware of the fact that you’re working on being an authority and then you need to talk real sense to back up your claim. But, if you can’t convince others by yourself then try and borrow some authority from an influencer or someone who has built up a lot of trust. If you can’t do any of those it does not mean your voice will not be heard, but it does mean yours will be just one of many. Throughout all this make sure that you always try to build genuine relationships with the people you work with, your teammates, your managers, your customers and users. The trust you gain will help you be perceived as more of an authority which in turn will mean your opinions will be solicited and given extra weight every time.

Images by notsogoodphotography and carrinated