I place my trust in people more often than I realise: heading out in my car means trusting other road users. Taking a seat on an airplane means placing my trust in my fellow passengers, the pilots, the security procedures at the airport and the maintenance engineers. And my ultimate trust experience had to be when I did a tandem skydive; attached to a man who I didn’t know, accepting his leadership based purely on the assumption that he knew what he was doing and – just like me – valued his life.
In teams, trust is at the heart of the psychological safety required to rapidly achieve results. Lencioni argues that trust is the foundation upon which cooperation is built. For me, it’s like building a bridge as you cross it: trust is built once you start working together. You can place your trust in others, or believe that the other person needs to earn your trust. The trust-based relationship is born through collaboration and through exploring the boundaries of the trust.
When I am coaching teams and ask what trust is, the answers range from ‘predictable, consistent behaviour’ to ‘something that you have, or don’t’. I disagree with the second answer; I believe that you can build trust actively and consciously. Find out how in this article.
But before you continue, I’d like to express my gratitude to Hans Veenman and Odette van Son for their valuable input, and Dave Nice for translating this article (www.davenice.nl).
A formula to create trust
Charles Feltman succinctly defines trust as: ‘choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions’. We therefore – be it consciously or unconsciously –assess the risk we run if we entrust something to someone else. This could be information (factual knowledge, your opinion, insight into your personal strengths and weaknesses), a result (if you delegate something to others), control (if you, like me, head out in your car or do a tandem skydive) or your image (if you offer insight into your doubts, experiences with failure or rejection, or your idiosyncrasies).
To help get a better handle on trust, I use this formula:
The formula is bidirectional: you can use it to analyse and develop someone else’s trust in you, but also to analyse your trust in another person.
Credibility covers your professional expertise, the extent to which you are objective and honest, meet your commitments and act proactively (particularly if you are unable to meet a prior agreed commitment), take ownership and deliver results.
Intimacy concerns the sense of unity, safety and commitment. You can influence intimacy through frequent and 1-on-1 contact, through confidentiality and through showing the other person that you see him.
The perceived risk concerns your assessment of the risk that the other person runs when in contact with you. This risk may be linked to content (we have different interests in our collaboration), to process (we represent different roles) and to relations (without me being aware, my behaviour may cause another to suffer a loss of face).
I will now explain each aspect of the formula.
The fundamentals of creating credibility are understanding your field, being objective and knowing what you are talking about. This means you base your approach on facts and avoid falsehoods, fabrications or lies. Admitting that you don’t know something will increase trust in you more than making things up or skirting around a subject. We recently attended a congress where the keynote speaker had all the ingredients to be credible: he is a partner at an influential consultancy agency, has some 20 years’ experience and produced lucid research results. And yet, for me, his credibility was called into question when he first said that he was working with aerospace engineers in Paris ‘yesterday’, before going on to say in a subsequent example that he was working in Berlin ‘yesterday’ with engineers from the car industry. It could of course be true that he worked in Paris and Berlin in a single day, but I felt he failed to convey how remarkable this was. He could have avoided this by either less explicitly mentioning ‘yesterday’ (by saying ‘recently’, for example), or by emphasising that he did indeed work in two countries in a single day (‘it sounds like a tall story, but I worked in both Paris and Berlin yesterday’). As it was, I caught my mind wandering, and also questioned the content of his narrative.
In addition to being professional and honest, you create credibility by meeting your commitments. This makes you reliable, and in time, predictable. If you consistently do not meet your commitments, you do become predictable, but your credibility is negatively impacted. I know a manager who is renowned for turning up late to meetings. His staff joke about his tardiness, and when I questioned them, they told me that in addition to damaging his credibility, his lack of punctuality also impacts their respect for him.
Closely linked to meeting your commitments is your ability to deliver results that are in line with the expectations of others. In order to manage expectations, you need to communicate transparently and do what is necessary. It’s about ‘doing the right thing, not the easy thing’. I recently spoke to a manager who was keen to arrange coaching for one of his teams. He outlined why the team was malfunctioning, and all of the causes could be traced back to the team members. If I opt for ‘easy’ in this example, I take no further action. If I choose ‘right’, I ask him about his contribution to the team malfunctioning.
Another example of ‘doing the right thing, not the easy thing’ is related to role awareness. Following a training session, the question is occasionally posed: ‘do you think Jan is a good manager?’. It appears ‘easy’ to simply answer the question, but – in our role as trainers – it is ‘right’ not to answer this question. After all, we are here to help people develop, not to judge their abilities.
Being proactive and taking ownership also increases your credibility. In order to be proactive, it is important you look ahead on time. If you are (too) late looking ahead, you lapse into reactive behaviour: adopting a wait-and-see approach, letting things run their course or only taking action if the situation requires it or if others ask you to do so. But looking ahead alone is not sufficient, you also need to respond to what you see, which once again calls on you to ‘do the right thing, not the easy thing’. For a recent example, allow me to take you into my garden. Following the dry summer of 2018, the garden was in need of professional care: it was overrun with weeds and ants. My gardener explained that he would use a powder to tackle the ants. When, a few days after his visit, I noticed that the three ant nests were still very much alive and kicking, I asked if he had remembered to use the powder. He explained that he had not, as rain was forecast, which would wash the powder away. My gardener’s account of his actions demonstrated his professional understanding and proactive behaviour. Proactively communicating his decision would have been the icing on the cake: as it was, I was disappointed when I saw the ant nests.
Taking ownership is essential if you make a mistake. Your mistake may damage the trust that someone else has placed in you. Your ownership is demonstrated once you apologise and discuss what you can do to rectify your mistake and rebuild trust.
Intimacy concerns the sense of unity, safety and alliance. The greater the intimacy, the stronger the trust and the greater the resilience, which will help to rebuild trust should it take a knock. If intimacy levels are high, you are more likely to be alive to the intentions of the other person, and to how their behaviour affects you.
It takes time to build up intimacy: it’s about experiencing things together and seeing them through. It is therefore important that you see each other frequently. The trust-based relationship becomes (even) stronger if you meet 1-on-1. Feedback meetings are a powerful tool in this respect: sharing what you value about your collaboration in a 1-on-1 situation, as well as what you appreciate less, results in intimacy. Feedback meetings also contribute to confidentiality; after all, you are sharing your experience in a private setting with no-one else present. Confidentiality is also created by not passing on anything told to you in confidence or anything that – in light of your role – is not your place to share.
For example, my contact at a client told me that she is looking for another job. In a situation such as this, it is not my place to discuss this information with her manager – my client. Here, it was obvious that I needed to hold my tongue (and easy for me to do so), but that is not always the case. It is important that you check with the source the extent to which the information is shared in confidence, or whether there are specific people with whom you can and may discuss the information. If you fail to check, you run the risk of damaging the confidentiality and betraying trust.
At a personal level, being more open about yourself boosts intimacy. This starts with self-knowledge: knowing your needs, strengths and weaknesses, and being able to apply them as such to benefit others. For example, the team member who indicates lacking an eye for detail, but who gives others sufficient elbow room when the details are being discussed. Or the team member who is tired following a sleepless night and is therefore keen to facilitate today’s meeting in order to keep busy.
Being open about yourself also concerns setting your boundaries. If you are willing and able to clearly set your boundaries, it is easier for another person to gauge how to interact with you. If you would like your boundaries, needs, strengths and weaknesses to be respected and given space, you will need to give the other person the very same respect and space.
The extent to which you are alive to the needs of the other person has – I believe, a major – impact on intimacy. An example: after a hectic week, you are walking with a few colleagues to the lift on the way out for some after-work drinks. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice a colleague who is still working intently. Do you yield to your need for relaxation, or are you alive to your colleague’s needs, so that you ask how he is doing, and perhaps even if you can lend a hand?
There are countless situations in which we can see that a colleague actually requires attention, but we are unfortunately less frequently aware of these situations because we are too focused on our own work, or our smartphones. In his interview ‘Millennials in the Workplace’, Simon Sinek explains how we kill time staring at our smartphones, instead of interacting with each other. His examples of potential interactions fall back on previous discussions, such as ‘How’s your Dad, I heard he was in hospital?’, or ‘Hey, did you ever get that report done? Can I help you out with that?’ Through (brief) interactions such as these, you are indirectly saying ‘I see you, I appreciate you, I’ll make time for you, good that you’re here’.
The extent to which you are open about your doubts, mistakes, weaknesses and need of assistance says a great deal about the sense of safety you experience in the relationship. This safety is expressed in how others respond to your doubts, mistakes, weaknesses and need of assistance. If their response is characterised by understanding and empathy, and not by judgement, the sense of unity is increased. An example: I am convinced that my solution works, but my colleague does not share my conviction. We do things my way, and it turns out that I’m wrong. My colleague responds by saying: ‘Okay, that doesn’t seem to be working, let’s explore what we now need to do to achieve our goal. How do you feel now? And how can I help you?’ He could have said ‘I told you so, didn’t I?’, but instead, he adopted the ‘we’ form (let us explore what we now need to do), inquired about my feelings and offered his help.
In the trust formula, credibility and intimacy are above the fraction bar, with perceived risk below. This third building block concerns the risk that the other person can experience in the collaboration with you. You assess what the other person may potentially consider to be risky, and anticipate accordingly. I address the perceived risk using three questions:
- What does the other person represent and what is her interest; is your interest shared or not, and how do you deal with this?
- How could our roles potentially be a threat to each other?
- How could my behaviour result in the other person suffering loss of face?
Shared or opposing interests
Be conscious of what the other person represents and what they stand to gain from your collaboration. By openly discussing these concerns, the perceived risk is reduced and mutual trust grows, even if you have opposing interests or do not (yet) agree.
In my experience, the interests of the team members in a particular assignment or team are rarely explored. Even within a single organisation, team members do not always explicitly state their interests, while they are expected to deliver results together. Consider, for example, the opposing interests in a multidisciplinary Manufacturing & Logistics team. The Purchasing Manager wants to purchase at the cheapest possible price, and is therefore keen on large volumes. The Operations Manager is pleased: after all, most of the required parts are in stock. But the Logistics Manager has to contend with storage problems, and the Finance Manager is not happy with all the funds locked up in the stocks. Additional complexity can arise in the case that these team members receive their targets not from the team leader, but rather individually based on global objectives. If the team members dare to openly share their individual targets with the rest of the team, understanding emerges and the team can properly consider their options. A lack of openness can result in speculations that negatively impact trust.
If the other person’s interest is not explicit, enquiring is naturally an option. This demonstrates your awareness of their interest, while also potentially activating another risk: that the other person feels threatened by your question. This threat may concern his position or loss of face. One way of minimising this threat is to ask your question within the confidentiality of a 1-on-1 meeting.
Potentially threatening roles
The second risk arises from a difference in roles. For example, if someone ‘from outside’ is (temporarily) involved in the collaboration. ‘From outside’ can range from:
- ‘from outside my immediate department’ (hence, colleagues from the same company) to
- ‘from outside our (local) organisation’ (hence, colleagues, but from another business unit or other location) to
- ‘from outside our company’ (external parties such as consultants, auditors, trainers, agile coaches).
Humans are social beings who are easily inclined to think in terms of ‘us and them’. I have witnessed members of staff from different departments or from different countries talking about each other in these ‘us-them’ terms, purely because the other person is not from the immediate vicinity, and various assumptions are therefore made.
But the temporary collaboration with ‘outsiders’ can also be a threat: what does the arrival of this consultant or agile coach mean for my position? Can I use this development to strengthen my standing, or does it herald the end of my position and/or department?
Being able to assess such threats and discuss the matter in confidence are crucial elements of building a trust-based relationship.
It goes without saying that confidentiality is a vital element of a confidential meeting. If you are told something in confidence, explicitly state how you will handle the information; this contributes to your credibility. If you hear something that you are not able to keep to yourself in light of your values or position, discuss the matter with the source. And be aware that even if saying nothing goes against your values, it is not always your role or responsibility to share the information with others. If you believe that the information should make its way to someone else, it is important that you help the source to share the information with the right people of their own accord.
Types of loss of face
A third perceived risk is the loss of face that the other person can experience. I would now like to offer several examples of loss of face, and how you can prevent it.
Loss of standing or image due to lack of impact, not being involved with decision-making, loss of control or being overruled, rejected or blocked in the presence of others. Avoid this loss of face by asking the other person for input before making a decision.
If the other person is displeased with your decision, provide additional information in a 1-on-1 meeting; explain your decision, elucidate and see whether you can comprehend the other person rationally, as well as their emotional response. You may need to let a day pass before once again asking them how they view your decision.
In addition to using this approach for substantive decisions, it can also be applied when assembling teams. For someone with sensitivities regarding their standing or image, not participating in a challenging new project can result in loss of face. Before publicly announcing who will be in the team, explain to him why you decided not to invite him, and ensure that he is able to explain the decision or why he is not involved to the outside world.
People who set store by safety within the group can experience loss of face if the harmony or mutual acceptance is threatened by arguments, raised voices, gossip or loyalty being called into question. Even if such a person is not directly involved with the argument, but witnesses it, the experience can impact the trust-based relationship. By discussing her experience of the situation 1-on-1 and showing how those directly involved worked together to resolve their conflict, you lay the foundations for renewed trust. These foundations are still rather shaky: only once she personally experiences that the conflict is completely resolved and that harmony has returned is she able to once again offer her full trust.
People who value rational understanding, logic, objective truth and doing things ‘right’ are discomfited if procedures are not followed, if they are made aware of incorrect or incomplete facts or faulty reasoning, or are confronted with commitments that are not met.
In light of their focus on reason, they rather see an argument as a heated discussion of the contents than as discord or a lack of safety in the relationship. In the case of an (over)emotional response, exaggeration or illogical action, for these people, the credibility of the rational collaboration is impacted.
Here, a 1-on-1 meeting is once again the first step towards renewed trust. If the other person has made errors of reasoning, avoid discussing this when others are present. If you are behind the deviations from procedure or commitments, frankly admit this and ensure you follow procedure in the future, explain (in advance) why you want to deviate from procedure, and make sure you meet your commitments. If the other person caused the deviation, do not pour salt on the wound; he will be keenly aware of his shortcoming and lingering on the subject achieves very little.
Applying the formula
The formula helps you to assess the level of trust and take targeted action. Think of someone with whom you would like to improve your trust-based relationship. Now consider everything you have done that has resulted in the other person trusting you, and what you may need to do to bolster this trust. To do so, use the below questions.
How credible are you in his eyes (low = 1, high = 5)? Do you have a thorough command of your professional field? Are you objective and fact-based (e.g. by also admitting what you do not yet know and returning to the subject later)? Do you meet your commitments? Do you deliver results? Are you proactive (e.g. if you cannot meet a prior commitment)? Do you take ownership (e.g. by assuming responsibility for activities, or apologising if you have made a mistake)?
How do you rate your level of intimacy (low = 1, high = 5)? How frequently do you speak to each other? And how often is that on a 1-on-1 basis? Do you treat the information you receive in confidence? Are you open with each other (e.g. do you also discuss your own doubts or mistakes, do you sometimes ask the other person for advice or feedback)? Do you have time for each other (e.g. do you return to a matter that you previously discussed)? Do you think that the other person feels safe with you (and what do you base this opinion on)?
How do you assess the risk that he runs in your relationship (low = 1, high = 5)? Which interests does he represent (what are your shared and opposing interests? Have you acknowledged his interest)? What are your roles in the collaboration and what are the associated risks? To which type of loss of face is he potentially sensitive and how tactfully have you handled this up until now (has something perhaps happened that it is worth returning to in a 1-on-1 meeting)?
Determining a score between 1 and 5 for each aspect, you will see that the maximum score is 25 and the minimum is 0.2. I cannot say what score indicates a good trust-based relationship. For that, it is important that you also assess the significance of each score: what do you or the other person think is more important? Some people think that credibility (delivering results, having professional expertise, meeting commitments, being proactive) is much more important than having a good relationship (confidentiality, asking for feedback, 1-on-1 meetings). So use the scores if you wish, but more importantly, explore how the score came to be and where you can take action to strengthen your trust-based relationship.