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When Trust Is Frail: Trust-Building For Leaders

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This blog is provided by Mary Jo Burchard, as part of the International Leadership Association’s interview series.  It is a companion to her interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Building Trust in Uncertainty: A Personal & Professional Journey that aired on Tuesday, April 6th, 2021.

 

Trust is the decision to make something cherished vulnerable to the care of another. When you and your people trust each other – more specifically, when you trust your care for each other – everything you do together is just easier. There’s natural momentum in creativity, curiosity, innovation, and engagement, because suspicion creates drag in any authentic interaction. Building an environment where trust can flourish needs to be a key focus, as leaders and as human beings. Conscious, intentional transfer of vulnerability into each other’s care is the most crucial component of building a trust environment. This exchange creates a very special magic.

Trust is multi-dimensional, always evolving, and necessarily flows both ways. The trust experience can be observed and built-in six dimensions, as observed in the ASC-DOC Trust Model:

Authenticity – “I believe you mean what you say, and you have no hidden agenda.”

Safety – “Your speech and actions make me feel safe and protected, not threatened, defensive, or insecure.”

Consistency – “Your behaviors and responses are predictable; I know what I can expect from you.”

Dependability – “You keep your promises and honor confidentiality.”

Ownership – “You carry the weight of what happens to what I entrust to you.”

Competence – “You have the skills and experience necessary to do what’s expected.”

Upon your initial interaction, you and the other person begin to determine how much you are willing to trust each other in every dimension. The trust experience evolves, growing, or straining with each interaction. Therefore, assessing and building trust needs to be constant and intentional. Here are a few tips to keep trust progressing:

Your (in)ability to trust each other is not necessarily about character or maturity. Everyone enters the trust adventure with a history. Past disappointments, betrayals, personal failures, or lack of experience may make the trust journey more difficult. Especially as a leader, you may bear the brunt of previous leaders’ shortcomings. Resist the urge to interpret negative assumptions about your character or abilities as an attack. Become aware of your contribution to these trust challenges. Listen to each other’s stories, to learn how to mitigate fears and insecurities along the way, and discover how/why this time can be different. The most important gift you can give each other in this process is to assume that you intend good toward each other, and do not intend to cause one another harm.

Power and need do not guarantee trust. If someone needs you (whether as a parent, an employer, or leader), they will do what they must (vis: comply) to get you to meet their need. You cannot assume that their vulnerability/need and your power to address it will automatically translate into a trust relationship. If trust is not built, the best you can hope for is a consistent transactional arrangement. Building trust requires more than meeting needs; it requires letting people in. Your mutual decision to let each other in begins the trust adventure. How can you forge a relationship that brings out the highest and best in everyone, when a shared frame of reference is non-existent beyond surface transactional engagement?

  1. Be the first to model trust and vulnerability. Trust is risky, but if you have the upper hand, you can afford to risk first. When a trust connection is frail, commit in advance to be the first to trust wherever you can, based on the other person’s perceived capacity to handle it. Modeling trust and vulnerability makes room for the other person to do the same.
  2. Focus on the person. How comfortable and confident are they with you? Don’t skip to a solution or directive without pausing to really see and hear the other person. Pay attention to how they are engaging with you. Are they guarded? Distant? Confident? Emotional? Gauge your current rapport with them at this moment; don’t take it for granted.
  3. Ask for input and really listen. Don’t assume that a visible lack of trust is an accusation or assessment about you. The person in front of you has a story, and that story is the lens through which they interpret your interaction. Honor that story. What are they sensing, feeling, perceiving? How do these insights inform their behavior and responses? People respond to things impacting what’s important to them. What can you tell is important to them? How is it being impacted/at risk right now? What is happening at this moment that might explain why they are angry, scared, confused, or suspicious?
  4. Discover and validate current needs. What is making them feel vulnerable right now? Ask probing questions: “It sounds like you need [X]… how can I help?” “You seem [x]… how can I help?” Essential needs include physical and environmental dimensions, but they also transcend the obvious immediate needs. More than food, more than water or air, people need connection, to be seen and valued. Don’t forget to validate the human need to belong.
  5. Affirm trust already present. You know what they need, but what do they already trust you will deliver? How can you protect, reinforce, and continue to earn that trust?
  6. Intentionally build trust. How can you address their current needs and concerns? Get good at listening for clues about current needs. Confirm you understand what you hear and observe. Get creative at addressing these needs and keep adapting as the needs evolve.

Remember, if trust necessarily flows both ways, the other person is never the only one vulnerable. To model trust, you need to let them in. You cannot be authentic without examining your own willingness and ability to trust. Belonging, care, and trust must thrive together in you if you want to create an environment where trust is the norm.

 

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

 

About the Author

Dr. MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D., Organizational Leadership) is convinced that our greatest depth and meaning often emerge from seasons of disappointment, surprises, and loss. Her own leadership approach has been shaped by the healing journey of their son, Victor, who was adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage. MaryJo’s research and consulting work focus on helping leaders and organizations stay humane and cultivate trust, especially in times of serious disruption and profound change.