“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair”
It’s a well-known quote, but is it true? For some relationships, it probably is. But we don’t always have “years” to build trust - especially at work where leadership and teams often change. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a decades-long crusade. Trust can be achieved in the right environment, with the right leadership and the right foundational values.
That was a nice pep talk. Now it’s time for a reality check. The truth is, we definitely have our work cut out for us. Building trust in today’s world is not an easy feat. This is an excerpt from the 2021 Canadian Edelman Trust Barometer:
“This year, after months of unprecedented disaster and turbulence – including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, the global outcry over systemic racism and political instability – the findings reveal widespread misinformation and mistrust of societal leaders in Canada.
In fact, 50% of respondents worry that business leaders are purposely trying to mislead them, and 46% believe the same about government leaders – this is a wake-up call for leaders, who need to take action to build trust amongst their stakeholders, or risk falling behind.”
One look at your social media feed will back this up. The fourth wave of COVID-19, the introduction of vaccine passports/certificates and other developments are only deepening the mistrust people have - not only for leaders, but for one another.
OK so it won’t be easy. But trust is still worth fighting for. With the doom and gloom out of the way, we must acknowledge the fundamental role trust plays in the workplace. It is the foundation for collaboration. Without it, we can’t openly debate or talk about important issues with depth. We spin our wheels and struggle with decision-making, accountability and commitment, which all eventually lead to conflict.
“The disaster of distrust in the workplace is that the strategies people use to protect themselves inevitably get in the way of their ability to effectively work with others.” The Thin Book of Trust, Charles Feltman
We can’t live (effectively) without it, so how do we achieve it? Leaders can’t demand their teams trust each other, just like they can’t demand their teams like each other. But they can create conditions that foster trust building.
Let’s begin with what trust actually means. “The Thin Book of Trust” by Charles Feltman lays out four dimensions of trust in the workplace:
Sincerity - you are honest, your actions align with your words, you can be believed and be taken seriously.
Reliability - you meet the commitments you make and keep your promises.
Competence - you have the capacity, skill, knowledge and resources to do what you propose to do.
Care - you have other peoples’ interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take actions. This is particularly important as it contributes to trust building.
When people have worked together, they have experienced these four dimensions. And when it goes well, it usually means they have high levels of trust.
In a group environment, these elements show up in interesting ways. Does the team freely debate? Are they comfortable disagreeing with each other because they know it’s safe inside the room? Do they feel what is important to them will be treated with care by their colleagues?
You can pick up on a group that isn’t trusting very quickly. They are often delicate, cautious and polite. They often don’t have the skill or capacity to tackle difficult topics, and they struggle to make decisions. Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores call this “cordial hypocrisy” in their book, Building Trust. On the other side of the spectrum, the conversation may turn defensive, blaming and accusatory.
Building trust is a process. It requires an environment where people can feel comfortable being vulnerable. Facilitation can be a helpful tool - regardless of what stage of the process you are in.
Leaders will often default to an “icebreaker” as a trust building exercise. In our experience, those simply do not work. The most effective way to build levels and layers of trust is by actually accomplishing work together.
By working through a facilitation process, we can help draw people out of the crowd, encourage and support them. This can be challenging, because people show up differently. While you may have to work to earn one person’s trust, someone else may lend their trust easily, and withdraw only when that trust is betrayed.
With new-ish teams, we like to use an approach that Amanda Ripley in her book High Conflict, Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out calls "contact theory”. We build levels of familiarity and safety, beginning in smaller groups, by getting to know each other personally. This step helps us see each other as people first - not only peers, colleagues or even competitors. By building comfort within the group, we can start to explore different perspectives in a nonjudgmental way. Ripley refers to this process as “inoculating” against conflict and laying building blocks for trust.
From there, we can start exploring different topics and issues in a way that allows the group to safely bring ideas and dialogue forward. We help the group acknowledge their different perspectives, where they agree and disagree. Trust emerges from knowing why someone thinks as they do, even when you don't agree and this reduces conflict in a group. We then start to ladder up the size of the groups, perhaps moving from two people to four, while also adding layers of complexity to the question the group is exploring.
One step at a time, we take you up the exploration ladder, working through any potential conflicts or difficult conversations that may arise. Each group is different, and it takes skill and practice to read the room and guide the conversation into trust building territory.
So now you’re looking at your team and thinking, hmm… do we trust each other? How do I evaluate their trust in me, and their level of trust in each other?
We have pulled some key questions from “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” to help get you started:
(on a scale of 1 - 5 where 1 is low and 5 is high)
If you scored low, do not fret. This is something you can fix. While it will take some work, either on your own or with the help of a facilitator, it doesn’t have to take “years”, and it will be worth it.