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Trust Me…..It’s Complicated (Part II of II)

Posted by David Wight in Leadership | 0 comments

In Part 1 of this two-part article that can be found on this same web site, I discussed why trust is so scare in organizations, and some of the basic dynamics involved when a person decides whether or not to trust another individual. In this second part, I’ll discuss different ways of building trust and what two individuals must do to maintain that trust.

Building Trust

A Trust Fall is a common exercise often used in Adventure Learning/Teambuilding. A person lets him or herself fall backwards and the person behind them is expected to catch them before they hit the ground and hurt themselves.   The idea is that person who falls exposes themselves (makes themselves vulnerable) to the risk of a painful fall, and develops more trust in the person who catches them because that person prevents that from happening. While it’s a great story for cocktail parties, there is little evidence that the exercise actually translate into a more trusting relationship. I can see, however, where I’d be less trusting of the person who was told to catch me, if they failed to do so.   Actually I’d probably be volunteering for the opportunity to be the catcher for that person. The problem however, is that just because someone followed instructions and caught me during an exercise with everyone watching, doesn’t mean that same person won’t stab me in the back the first chance he/she gets when the stakes become real and higher. The exercise just doesn’t translate or carry over to the real world particularly well.

My above desire for revenge, however, does illustrates in a strange way how building mutual trust or the lack thereof is a reciprocal process. Trust on the part of person A for person B, tends to breed trust of B for A. Conversely it’s a lot harder to trust someone if you know that person doesn’t trust you. It takes time for trust to build between two people and usually it happens incrementally, with the vulnerability being risked relatively low. One person takes a small step…….trusting the other person by exposing a fragment of vulnerability, and then they wait to see what happens. If the other person doesn’t hurt them, that’s the beginning of creating trust. It also creates the expectation of reciprocity…….I trusted you (and it worked) now you need to trust me with a somewhat equal level of vulnerability.   Gradually as mutual trust develops, the two people begin exposing corresponding higher levels of vulnerability.

To Trust or Not to Trust

Unfortunately, however, the reality is that you are not going to be able to trust certain people. How important that is within an organization often depends on the nature of your hierarchical relationship. If you have a subordinate in a critical position, and you decide you will never be able to trust the person because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy, then you may have a decision to make. I once asked that very question of an executive about her second in command, a person she had to rely heavily on when she was out of the office. The subordinate had the reputation for being very good with customers, but a bully with coworkers and subordinates. The executive’s answer was a straight-forward, “No.”

“Is that ever going to change?” I asked.

The executive paused for a moment and then shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”

A few weeks later she terminated the person; not exactly a cause for celebration, but in this situation, I thought the executive made the right decision. Later I learned that a co-worker felt badly about the termination so she called the person who responded, “Yeah, they could have let two of you go instead of me and saved the same amount of money.” The co-worker stopped feeling badly for this person very quickly.

The point here, is that you are going to encounter people in your organization, whether it be subordinates, peers or your managers whom your past experience tells you not to trust.   What’s that old expression, “Fool me once, shame on you…Fool me twice, shame on me.” If that’s your conclusion, I recommend not wasting your time or energy on building trust with them; limit your interaction and vulnerability. If that’s not possible, you’ll need to figure out a coping strategy to minimize your vulnerability when you have to interact with this person. And finally if you have someone reporting to you in a critical position whom you simply can’t trust, you may need to make a change, even if that person is good at what they do. If you can’t trust any of the people reporting to you, you may want to take a closer look at the criteria for your selection procedures or a closer look at yourself.

For those with whom you want to build mutual trust, start with your own behavior in an effort increase the person’s perception of your trustworthiness. Here I’m stressing mutual trust, because if a person wants you to trust the, but doesn’t care if they can trust you, that sends up a warning signal about how much the person really cares about the relation. The reality however, is that you can’t control another person’s behavior no matter how much power you have; in fact, the only thing you (hopefully) can control is your own behavior.   Telling someone they can and should trust you doesn’t work; in fact it usually has just the opposite impact. Remember the old Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert comes back from a meeting with his new boss and says to himself, “How come whenever I get a new boss, he tells me that I shouldn’t trust anyone but him?”

A reasonable place to start to build mutual trust is make sure that you do the kinds of things that make someone trustworthy for you. Recognize however that your criteria for being trustworthy might be different than that of the person, often based on their capacity for trusting others. As an example, micro-managers typically have a low capacity for trust which manifests itself in their tendency to over- manage their subordinates no matter how proficient. Conversely, such behavior seldom leads to trust in those managers from their subordinates, and I would argue, other members of the organization either.

One straightforward option for building trust is to make it a discussion topic by simply ask someone what another person has to do for them to considered that individual trustworthy. Also recognizing that trust tends to be reciprocal, so you might also look for opportunities to show that you trust them. Remember, however, it’s a process. In the beginning of this process you should choose situations where you are absolutely clear about your own expectations, and you are absolutely sure that the person has the capability of meeting your expectations so your vulnerability is limited.   Can you trust someone with a task who doesn’t have the capability to meet your expectations? Sure, but if you do, you need to be prepared to give that person more direction and support to successfully complete the task.   In fact, you may want to make this a point of discussion with the person up front so you both have an understanding of what that direction and/or support will initially look like. You don’t want to fall into the trap where you think you’re helping them but they perceive it as overly controlling.   Conversely if you give someone who lacks the capability to do the task with no help, you’re setting the person up to fail and that will only weaken any trust that may exist between you.

There is a really interesting phenomena operating here, however, and it has tremendous implications for building trust.   You can do everything you can think of to be trustworthy, but in the final analysis, it’s the other person’s perception of your behavior that counts. Their perception and interpretation of your behavior is the ultimate determining factor for whether they will trust you.   Take the following two situations which involve the exact same behavior on the part of the manager. In the first situation, you have a long time subordinate, who is excellent at her job, and she is particularly good at doing task A. In the second situation you have a brand new employee, who, while enthusiastic, doesn’t have the knowledge or skill to do Task A. You assign task A to both employees with little supervision, direction or instruction. The long-time employee interprets this lack of supervision as an indication of your trust in her and her ability. The new employee interprets this same behavior as an indication that you don’t care about him, or that you want him up to fail. The same behavior from you results in radically different interpretations of that behavior primarily because of the difference in how the two people see themselves. What’s particularly interesting here, is how each person’s perception of themselves and more specifically, their competence for task A, impacts their perception/interpretation of the manager’s behavior. Something tells me that this is the often the rule rather than the exception. How willing to trust do you think most con men will be when they know they can’t be trusted?

Still, if you want to build trust with someone, it’s important to know what they consider to be trustworthy, and what would constitute a violation of their trust. Also recognize that this can change based on the situation and that the process is going to be much more difficult with some people than others based on how they see themselves. Over time, as trust between you and another person increases, you’ll be able to start to trust when higher stakes and greater vulnerability on your part is involved.


But It Can Be Cut Down So Quickly

I once watched a video that used the metaphor of a giant oak tree for trust. The video opened by showing how many years it had taken for the tree to reach its full height. And then it showed how it only took a few minutes for someone with a chain saw to bring it crashing down.

So what does a person have to do to avoid destroying the trust that exists between them and another individual?

The obvious answer is not to do anything that violates or is a breach of the other person’s trust. Sometimes that’s easier said than done however, because as mutual trust develops, the expectations each person has of the other also rise thereby increasing the probability that a breach will occur. Plus all breaches of trust are not created equally; some are easier to forgive and forget. Expectations again come into play however, as one very smart once person explained to me, “It hurts more when a member of your family steps on your foot, than it does when a stranger does, because a member of your family is supposed to love you, not hurt you.

In the finally analysis, to avoid the dramatic destruction of mutual trust or even its gradual erosion, both parties have to care about the relationship. They have to value the relationship, they have to take both care of the relationship, and they both have to be willing to accept some responsibility for the quality of that relationship. Without both parties taking some responsibility for the relationship…..once it becomes a one-way street, all bets are off.

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