“I believe in trusting. Trust begets trust. Suspicion is foetid and only stinks. He who trusts has never yet lost in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Trust is one of those words that has come to have a lot of meaning to me. I often hear people use it very casually, without giving much thought. I also hear people use it putting much emphasis behind it, as a critical element in relationships. In this essay, I will attempt to explain what I have found trust to mean in a professional workplace setting, why it’s important, and ultimately, how we get and use trust. I will caveat that I don’t claim to know all things, and so as I learn and gain additional insight I will likely update this essay accordingly.
First, what is trust? One of the most frequent phrases that I hear are, “I don’t trust John, because…” Usually, it is because John, or whoever it may be didn’t do or did something they were or weren’t supposed to do. Or maybe someone wasn’t truthful, and therefore now we cannot trust them. I usually have to stop and ask, what is meant by, “I don’t trust them.” Because a complete loss of trust would mean that you cannot have any confidence whatsoever. Is John going to come to work with a gun? Is he going to hunt you down at your home? Or is it that you just don’t count on John to get something done? In other words, let’s be more specific rather than using broad definitions.
As we pinpoint what the trust issue is, then we can determine what to do next. Is this an issue that we can work with? The answer to that question varies depending on the issue and the willingness of the team to deal with the issue.
The more pertinent question is, how do we gain trust? In order to gain the trust of others we must be the ones to reach out with the hand of trust first. What does that mean? It means we must be willing to make the effort first, we can’t sit back and say I can’t trust anyone until they prove themselves. Unfortunately I hear this phrase very often, “trust must be earned.” Under this pretense, we are setting up everyone for failure, no one will ever earn our trust. Why? Because people will always disappoint and by expecting others to prove themselves you are expecting them to fail and therefore you are looking for a reason not to trust them. I can promise you, if that is what you are looking for, that is what you will always find. So, if no one can ever gain your trust, how do you expect others to ever trust you? Simple answer, they won’t. A distrusting person, is not the trusting person we are all looking for. To the individual who says trust must be earned, they are in a quandary, for it will rarely if ever happen.
As I discussed and asked my peers and mentors how they would define trust one answer I was given was as follows: “Integrity and actions of a person are so respected, people align themselves without complete information” (John Fletcher). I found this definition of trust to be intriguing as it pinpointed on what trust is, integrity and respect. You don’t need all of the information to trust the process, why, because you understand the integrity of the person so much and respect them that you don’t need that. This is a whole different level of trust than what I started out talking about. In order to gain trust you must trust, even those you don’t know, but trusting someone or something to the point of having a high degree of confidence in them because you do know them, this is the trust where we all want to transition too as a leader, in a marriage, in a friendship, in a workplace, etc. This is a foundation of trust that everyone needs to progress to in order to be successful in the long run.
To build a solid foundation of trust with others does take time. Extending the hand and willingness of trust can only go so far. A foundation of trust must then be built to make it last. It takes time to get to know others and to understand them. How is this done? Here are some points that I have learned. People love to talk about themselves, and I have found that simply allowing people to talk about themselves shows that I am interested in them and it allows them to open up. That opening up helps them to start to feel a trusting bond with me. However, they need to feel like they know me as well or else they won’t understand me. As a leader and as someone that is trustworthy, what is it that others need to understand about me? They need to know my trustworthy attributes. As I have reflected on what those attributes are or should be, this is what I have come up with.
As you think of a boss you want to work for, think if they possessed these attributes, what kind of boss would they be? Would they be someone you would trust? If you had to make a decision, would you have confidence that your boss would be happy with your decision if they possessed these qualities? Are there other qualities not listed? If so, list them out and reflect on them and how you can incorporate them.
For me, I try to make sure that my team always knows where they stand with me so that they don’t need to guess. I don’t give subtle hints, I am straight forward with them, yet kind and compassionate. I cannot even gossip, if so my actions will immediately become suspect. When people come to me and complain to me about others or about my predecessors it always makes me wonder what they say about me when I am not present. Undoubtedly, if I engage in the same conversation the same thoughts will cross their minds as well. I must be beyond reproach with my team, and they must be the same. Certainly miscommunication and misunderstanding will happen and we must be able to have compassion and forgive rather than fear the repercussions from an angry boss.
So what does trust look like? Trust doesn’t mean that I am going to give my team every bit of information, that doesn’t mean I don’t trust them either. Rather, I have learned from experience this can have a detrimental effect on a team. As the leader, I often need a compilation of the information but individual team members do not necessarily need the same information. One example being that it can overwhelm them, exceeding the limits of their job scope distracting them from performing their normal duties. This can be difficult for me, as I am prone to share more than to withhold information. But my team needs to trust me to know that I will share with them what is needful for them, and I need to trust them that they will be open and honest with me. My job as the leader is to foster an environment where that trust can thrive.
Additionally I need to know that they have my back and are supportive of me. When we have meetings, I expect that if they disagree they express those views, but ultimately my job is to make the final decision and when I make that final decision I expect everyone to be fully supportive of that decision like as if it were their own. Similarly I expect that my bosses have my back and are supportive of what I am doing. This is far more important to me than a pay raise or a bonus. I can go out and be the punching bag if needed so long as I know that my team has my back. I try to ensure that anything involving my team, I keep them in the loop, doing so helps to build that confidence that I will communicate with them if anything of any significance happens. Similarly I expect my team (including my bosses) to do the same.
When does trust in any relationship begin to fall apart? When communication stops or becomes suspect. The quickest way for employees to lose trust in an organization is to lose communication with leadership or for the behavior of leadership to become suspect. Absolute vigilance must always be given to keeping and maintain trust as once it becomes suspect it is lost and extremely difficult to regain.