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Thoughts on trust
A conversation starter
I’m working on a product launch related to my Leadership Archetypes framework. By the way, the framework was just registered by the Library of Congress. I know it’s not really in the Library of Congress. Still, my heart fluttered when I saw the title on the envelope!
Sorry for the digression. Back to today’s topic.
Outside of my clients, these days I’m spending my creative time doing research and collecting my thoughts about how to present it. Inside my brain components of the framework float about. I go to bed consumed with it. While thoroughly enjoying this, it doesn’t leave much space for other creative activities which take considerable effort — like this newsletter. I thought about suspending it while I pull the product launch together but I love being in conversation with you all. Instead I’m relieving the pressure of having a perfect piece each week in favor of starting a conversation about a topic.
The other day I got myself ready to write. I whipped up my matcha, put on my morning playlist and snuggled into my chair ready to write about the nuances of gossip in organizations, as requested. Instead, this tweet floated to my brain’s surface. After that I kept writing, quickly popping out a few paragraphs. I present you with a few scattered thoughts on trust.
My definition of trust
Trust is…knowing you’ll catch me when I fail; you’ll be forthright with me about issues that affect me; you believe in my abilities; you show up in our relationship; when I confide in you, you keep it private; you listen to me and take actions that support me; I feel like I can be myself with you without being judged; knowing you won’t turn your back on me if I make a mistake. When trust is broken you own your behavior rather than deflect or minimize the resulting pain. I observe you actively working to rebuild that trust bank.
When I was in coach training we did a trust fall exercise. It was the classic one where one of you stands behind the other. The person in front falls backwards, trusting the person in back to catch them. This exercise terrified me. I was small, weak and physically awkward. I partnered up with a friend. She was the kind of person who radiated confidence. We took our places. I shook my hands to prepare myself and get rid of excess energy. It didn’t help.
“OMG, I’m so nervous.” I whispered.
My friend whipped around, giving me a sharp look.
“How can I trust you to catch me if you don’t trust yourself?”
That was the moment I realized if I wanted others to trust me I had to believe in myself first. Self-doubt sows more destructive seeds too. If we don’t trust ourselves we have little hope of trusting others. In our fear we move towards control, centralizing decisions with us, leading others feeling controlled. This is hardly a welcome wagon for trust. Being a trusted person starts with trusting yourself.
Building vs keeping trust
There are two parts of trust — building it and keeping it. Keeping trust is harder than building it. When we’re trying to build trust, we expend an enormous amount of effort. We’re conscious about our actions. We pay attention to what we say, how we interact, we listen more deeply. It’s easy to think about building trust at specific times like when you start a new role, meet a new person or embark on a new relationship. Once you have trust, it’s easy for cruise control to become the default. Though we don’t mean too, we let actions that build trust slide a bit. When we’re a few minutes late. We don’t follow up on our promises. Making trust building a part of your regular thought process takes consicous effort. This is why keeping trust is harder.
Behaviors that erode trust
Micromanaging makes us feel like we’re not trusted
When you’re inconsistent we don’t trust you’ll show up for us
One way conversations lower trust, we think you don’t value us
When you gossip about others we wonder if you talk about us too
When you eschew feedback we wonder if you’re open to growing
Saying one thing to me and the opposite to someone else
Showing up late doesn’t make me feel important to you
When your actions don’t match your words
Trust is essential for leaders but there’s friction
Trust is the foundation if you want to lead without relying solely on authority. Most leaders think about it when trying to initially build that trust bank but it gets harder as the responsibilities pile up and the fires grow. The pressures mean even though we care deeply, we think less about keeping trust.
When I was a leader my days were wall-to-wall meetings in between juggling multiple priorities. I focused on not being a roadblock for my team, easing friction across organizational boundaries and making sure to share information. There wasn’t time to think about the nuances of building trust every day.
I did think about relationships — all the time. I was careful with my promises, always trying to meet them. I listened deeply and took action to alleviate frustrations when I could. I showed up on time to meetings and rarely rescheduled. If someone shared something confidentially, it stayed with me. As a curious person and a trained coach, I asked oodles of questions so I understood others’ experiences.
Looking back I realize those actions were building trust, though I may not have labeled them that back then. Mostly I was trying to keep all the plates spinning. I took actions that fostered trust but I wonder how much better I would have been if I regularly set time aside to specifically focus on keeping trust. If I were a leader today I’d check my trust bank regularly. I’d also look at the various audiences in more detail. It’s easy to focus on building trust with the boss so I’d make sure to particularly look how I was building it with the team and my peers.
The compound interest of trust
The compounding effects of interest with money also apply to trust. Trust accrues through small consistent actions rather than grand gestures. Grand gestures are nice but not sufficient. Trust can erode if big promises aren't followed up with consistent action. Of course trust erodes through consistent negative action. For instance, you say one thing and do another over and over. Or you favor the same people again and again.
We often talk about trust as if it’s consistent. It’s actually a wily beast. Trust is a fragile foundation prone to cracks unless cultivated consciously and consistently.
There’s a gradient of trust. It isn’t necessarily all or nothing — there are layers to it. When trust is paper thin even small ruptures can threaten the relationship. How do we build resilient trust? The kind that helps us find our way back to each other when it’s broken. By the way, this applies to work relationships too, not just romantic relationships.
Trust is a foundation for productive relationships but after an intial get-to-know-you period we don’t often address it directly until it’s broken. We often assume we know what will build trust (and keep it) but what does it for me might not be the same for someone else. I feel lucky that my coaching program taught me how to build trust through my actions but also through direct conversations. All of us might consider having conscious conversations to set expectations of how we’ll behave. There’ll be more psychological safety, less breakdowns and stronger relationships as a result.
How often do you consciously think about building trust? How do you build it?