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SPIE Professional July 2007

Trust Matters

Entering the workforce means more than being a good engineer. Essential qualities such as trustworthiness must be sharpened to be an effective professional.

By Marc Himel

For the last several years you’ve been taking direction from your professors and academic advisors. You have learned about many topics including physics, mathematics, and optics. Many of you have had the opportunity to work in research labs at your university or have taken advantage of an internship or co-op position to gain experience in your chosen field. What you may not have focused on are the values that will give you a better chance of succeeding as a leader within your new organization.

Because optical engineers are few, you may end up playing leadership roles early in your career. You could, for example, find yourself performing the systems engineering for a new optical system, which could require you to negotiate specifications with customers, vendors, marketing, and other engineers on your project team. You may need to be the integrative person on your team, ensuring that all the mechanical, electrical, software, and optical subsystems work together.

There are several attributes I think are critical if you are to achieve long-lasting success in your career. These are trust, honesty, unity, service, humility, justice, and respect. The first and foremost of these is trustworthiness, so I’ll focus on it for this article.

It takes time to build up trust in any relationship, but once established, working together gets much easier. Without it, however, relationships suffer and business interactions become more difficult. Suppose you speak to your supervisor in confidence to get some ideas regarding how to work more effectively with a difficult colleague. Later you learn that your supervisor shared this information with your colleague, only making matters worse.

How likely are you to share your concerns with your supervisor again? How long will it take to rebuild trust? If your supervisor had maintained your confidence, coached, and mentored you, wouldn’t this create a much better relationship where difficult issues could be resolved together? Every day you will be faced with situations that will allow you to either build or block trust. Let’s look at a few examples.

Keep Your Commitments

As a product manager, I learned that the trust we developed with our customers allowed us to succeed and grow. Our customers knew that we were committed to them and that we were honest with respect to what we could deliver.

In sales, there is the pressure to over-commit to win business, as there is always the threat that the customer will choose to go with a competitor. I have always found it better to explain the risks and ensure that they understand all the issues. As important as it is to develop trust with external stakeholders such as customers, it may be even more important to develop trust with the people inside your organization.

The more they trust you, the more likely they are to go the extra mile when necessary. At the same time, I trust them to be honest with me. This mutual trust allows us to come together and effectively solve problems and find solutions to meet our needs.

Create a Blameless Environment

Everybody knows that we are going to make mistakes and yet, in many organizations, leaders focus on blame. In this type of environment people will not admit mistakes, nor will they take the risks necessary to truly be innovative. This will result in lost market share as development efforts slow down.

I remember a situation several years ago when I was a new manager in a company with this trait. A technician reluctantly brought an error to my attention. During the course of the discussion, it became evident that she had made the measurement error. Together, we identified the solution and because the error was caught early, no major costs were incurred and no delivery schedules affected.

What surprised me was that she asked if she would be fired or if her performance review would be affected for making the mistake. I let her know that since she had come forward immediately upon learning of the error, and we were able to put an effective solution in place, that this was not an issue.

Since mistakes happen, what is most important is how we deal with them. Even customers know that errors will happen. I think some of our most loyal customers are those that have witnessed first hand how we deal with the mistakes we have made.

Give Credit Where It’s Due

Don’t take credit for another person’s work, but be generous with praise and credit for others’ efforts. I recall being invited to a brainstorming meeting where my supervisor pulled me aside and suggested that I should not mention any of my ideas during the meeting. Instead, I should send an e-mail presenting my idea (as if it had occurred to me after the meeting) so that I would get credit for it.

How can you identify the best solutions to an issue if you can’t build on each other’s ideas? Lack of trust, in this case, led to mediocre solutions from some of the brightest people I have ever worked with.

I have provided you some examples of things that can build or break trust in a relationship or organization. Building trust takes time and continuous effort, while breaking trust can happen in an instant. So take the time to think about your daily actions and focus on how you can use each personal interaction to build trust rather than block it.

Now I would like to hear from you. If you have any thoughts or questions on how to build trust, please email me at trust@colorfulsky.com.


Further Reading

Managing with the Wisdom of Love: Uncovering Virtue in People and Organizations (Jossey-Bass Business and Management Series)
By Dorothy Marcic Publisher: Jossey-Bass, 2001 ISBN: 0787901733

Love ‘em or Lose ‘em: Getting Good People to Stay
By Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordon-Evans Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 1999 ISBN: 1-57675-073-6

How to Become an Employer of Choice
By Roger E. Herman and Joyce L. Gioia Oakhill Press, 2000 ISBN: 1-886939-35-7


Leadership Series

This is the first article in a series brought to you by the SPIE Student Services Department and SPIE Professional. From leadership qualities to practical workplace advice, a variety of experts will share their knowledge and experiences about becoming an effective professional.

Visit the Student News section of SPIE.org at SPIE.org/studentnews, as installments will be added monthly.


Marc Himel
Marc Himel received his BS in physics from California Polytechnic State University in 1984, his PhD in optical sciences from the University of Arizona in 1988, and an MBA from the University of Connecticut in 1998. He has been with Tessera North America (formerly Digital Optics Corporation) since 1999 where he is currently test group manager. He has more than 35 published papers and one pending patent.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200707.17

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