A Glue Called Trust

5 Practices for cultivating and maintaining trust

The Trust Test. Paint: Duy Huynh

If I would have to choose one word which is always relevant to the personal and professional journey of any Change-Maker; one word which is a key factor in the success of each project, initiative or team work; one word which is significant to leaders as well as to educators, to individuals as well as to entire communities — That word is TRUST.

Why trust?

Because it is at the core of our activities as leaders in a world of social-environmental-educational-economical transformations and paradigm shifts. Because it’s a necessary component for a thriving, sustainable and healthy human society. Because it’s damn hard and challenging to build trust and maintain it through difficult times in an environment based on skeptical and cynical culture. Because it’s the opposite of FEAR and JUDGMENT, two voices we’re continuously eager to combat, but often don’t know how. 
How do we develop trust?

I used to think that trust is a quality that someone owns, and you either have it or you don’t. I perceived trust as a component of personality: when you develop your social character over the years, you eventually stay with an image of a person who can be trusted, or not. I argued that it’s a big deal to gain, and it can be ruined at once. Well, I was wrong.

After looking deeper into the subject and following my own experiences, I discovered that the process of developing trust is working differently: The rigorous research shows, that trust is something built in small steps: separate actions that sum up to comprise the trustworthiness of a person, a group of people, and even organizations. Therefore the right attention and right choices can quite easily build trust, as much as destroy it — the key is that it’s an ongoing process, affected by daily decisions and focused actions.

The well-known couples’ researcher John Gottman describes those key decisions as “sliding door moments” — moments in everyday life where you can turn away from someone who needs your support, or turn your attention toward that person to meet his/hers need. Your choice will determine whether you built another stepping stone of trust in the relationship with that person, or gradually erode trust.

In her book “Daring Greatly”, Dr. Brené Brown uses a beautiful metaphor of a “Marble Jar” to explain the same process: Every time we act in a way that conveys a message to someone that we can be trusted — even the smallest thing like remembering a birthday — we put another marble in a jar. Every time we do the opposite, a marble is taken out of the jar. The more full our jar is, the more trustworthy we are in the eyes of that person — trust is being built in small, incremental steps.

Frogner Park Vigeland Installation, Norway. Photo: Wikimedia commons

I remember a clear example from my own life, an instance when I had the choice to add a marble to the jar of trust or not. A couple of years ago when I was working with a team of educators on a sustainable consumerism project, I invited a friend of mine who was a social expert to participate in order to help us scale up exposure. During the meeting I did what I always do: lead the meeting in a way that leaves a lot of space to participants to speak up, develop a common strategy and share ideas — instead of coming in with my own prepared master plan of how this project should look like. At the end of the meeting, my friend came over to me and openly said: “You know what, I don’t think it went well. You have to manage meetings more strictly”. I replied that it’s my way of facilitating, and maybe she needs to open up to new ideas instead of being so fixed. She turned away from me, and a few minutes later I got a text from her which read: “For the sake of our friendship, it’s better if we don’t work together anymore”.

While I was struggling with how should I respond, a member of the team approached me and shared how much they enjoyed the way the process has been done, and how the process ensured that people were being heard and kept them engaged. At that point, I knew what I had to do. I replied my friend in a pleasant manner, that I’m sorry if she got hurt and that I know my way is not always perfect, yet I would love to explain to her where I’m coming from and my motivation. I also complimented her for bringing her skills to the project, and told her that it would be appreciated if we DO keep cooperating despite our disagreements. Finally, I thanked her for her feedback (though I acknowledged that I didn’t intend to change my managing style as she suggested).

We are still good friends and continue to work together on different projects every once in a while, and I still ask her for feedback. In the given example, the decision I made to communicate openly and not turn away from my friend, to reach out to her and connect, built more trust. I can only assume that if I had chosen to feel hurt and turn away, this would have eroded trust and our friendship.

Zooming out from one-on-one relationships, and taking a wider look at teams, communities, organizations and institutions, trust is just as important in keeping the process going in a healthy, thriving and sustainable way. Trust, or lack of it, is at the root of many of the obstacles we face during collective decision making, project managing, regardless of the size of the team. If trust is sustained and nourished, if participants are encouraged to share their views and suggestions — and are respected for sharing those, and if decisions are being made in a transparent way and while including all opinions and voices — then the process is more likely to go smoothly, or at least keep people engaged and feeling aligned with what is happening. However, if manipulation, secrecy, alliances and power imbalances are the common practices — then trust erodes and the process is more likely fail or be ineffective.

In his book “The Speed of Trust”, Stephen M.R. Covey sees cultivating trust as the key component for speeding up processes and decision making. This relates to businesses, communities, families, couples, and every kind of human interaction you can imagine. The formula is brilliant in its simplicity:

(Strategy X Execution) X Trust = Results

The more trust you put in the process –be it a business strategy, relationships within teams or one-to-one connections — the faster the desired results will manifest. Think for a moment about an initiative you wanted to promote and execute and try to recall the level of trust between the people you were working with on that initiative. Was it high — could people communicate freely and express their opinions? Or were there were trust issues, like decisions being made beforehand in private, or information that was not transparent or accessible to everyone, or maybe people were tasked with assignments and didn’t deliver on time?

Now think about how the level of trust affected the process and its progression. The conclusion is clear: nearly every process is slowed down when trust is an issue between the people involved. Build trust first, and accomplish goals much smoothly and faster down the road. Of course the presence of trust does not guarantee that there will not be challenges along the way, but handling them will become much easier and effective if trust is already established.

In this vain, a sentence which is almost a mantra to me comes to my mind. During the year of my masters’ program in Sweden (Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability) we constantly heard the phrase “Trust the Process” from the program staff. I have to say, I had mixed feelings on this. How can you trust a process when you’re not familiar with all its twists and turns, let alone the results? How can you put your faith into something, when you encounter all kinds of obstacles and difficulties along the way? Growing up in a culture of suspects and skepticism, where you hear warnings about how careful you should be and the need constantly watch your back, it’s quite hard to let the guards down and start trusting the process. But I was already there, living and studying abroad, surrounded by amazing and inspiring students struggling with similar issues to me. So I decided to take the leap and fully engage with the experience — I Trusted the Process and it was a wonderful experience, worth every challenging moment.

If we don’t open up and let ourselves be fully present, vulnerable, without shields and guarantees that it’s going to work — we might miss the greatest opportunities of our lives. Passion and trust go hand in hand. To pursue our passions, to mobilize the desired change — within our perspectives and outward in our social circles of impact — we have to engage and trust. Trust me, it works, and it feels great.

5 practices for cultivating and maintaining trust

  1. Keeping your word. You gave your word — now keep it. Like my kids remind me so often: Mom, you promised… Yes, we have to keep our promises to other people and to ourselves in order to build trust. Even if it requires effort. A note: replying to an email or calling back on time is also keeping your word. It’s not just politeness and professionalism, it’s upholding your part of the agreement in the communication process.
  2. Attending to other peoples’ needs. We can interact, communicate, talk, and listen — but nothing is stronger than truly paying attention to someone’s expressed need. It could be wonderful to help him/her meet the need, but if it’s not in your capacity to do that it is also beneficial to just listen and make someone feel heard and seen. You won’t believe what attention to human needs can do for increasing the level of trust!
  3. Offering help, asking for help. We’ve all been there: needing help, or in a situation where we can offer something to support others. Helping someone is a genuine act of trust building, as it creates an immediate connection and bond. We live by our values and therefore we’re trustworthy. Asking for help is a great contributor to trust building — it conveys the message that we’re human, we’re imperfect, and we can use some support, and that we trust the other person with our vulnerability. We are openly reaching out to someone, making room for building a connection and enhancing trust.
  4. Transparency and honesty. If it’s hidden below the surface, it will keep bubbling until it explodes. Communicating your intentions clearly, making information public or available to the relevant people involved in a process, and openly sharing the reasons and drivers behind a decision — are all mechanisms and practices which are proven to build trust amongst participants. Being honest and avoiding manipulation is another key factor in cultivating our trustworthiness.
  5. Authenticity. This can be a tough one. Staying authentic and true to our beliefs and values, facing cynicism, violent expressions or behaviors, and mediocre compromises is always challenging. But what does that have to do with trust? Think about it this way: when people inspire you through sharing their truth and authentic stories — you trust them. The inspiration is always flavored with sprinkles of trust. But when people say words that are not aligned with their actions, or when we feel that they are just pleasing us, or using populist gestures to manifest their image — then authenticity is out the window and trust quickly erodes. While it might be challenging to stay authentic in the face of our social and cultural reality, sticking to it is sure to earn you Trustworthiness.

Thanks for reading. This article was originally published on www.bethechange.org.il