Closing the latch — the importance of trust

Trust breeds trust. It is a foundation of any well-functioning, happy and fulfilled community, and is the cornerstone of shared endeavour.

A week ago I went on a long walk in the Yorkshire Dales. As fellow Dales walkers are well aware, as you cross meadows with cattle and sheep, you’re expected to put a simple, old-fashioned latch back on the gates after you’ve passed them. Occasionally, a friendly sign reminds you of your duty. No one is there to monitor or punish if you don’t get it right, yet I have never found a gate unlatched. Like so many fellow hikers, I do take care, because I love the Dales and I like being a responsible member of the walking community.

“Trust is a crucial element in most relationships, whether private or professional.”

I sometimes wonder how I and other walkers would behave if farmers did not put such trust in us to keep their animals safe, if gates were closed with modern fail-safe technology, and rules were strictly enforced? Is it possible we would be less inclined to be careful and trustworthy as a result of the lack of trust being placed in us?

Trust is a crucial element in most relationships, whether private or professional. When I think of the past jobs I have had, I realise that the times I felt most valued and most able to contribute were the ones when I trusted my colleagues and my boss, and perhaps more interestingly, I felt like they were equally trusting of me. Being trusted is empowering. It makes you want to do your best work and truly earn the trust.

“Leaders have to invest time and energy in the people within their organisation and create a sense of personal connection.”

Trust is a difficult concept to measure, yet it exists in abundance in communities that are working well and have happy members. It may be a bit like household or maintenance work: it is essential, but you notice its crucial importance most clearly when it ceases to exist and things go wrong. When levels of trust are low, working well together becomes more difficult, if not impossible. Trust is important because it enables us to be vulnerable, which we need to dare to innovate. In the workplace, when there is trust in leaders, line managers and colleagues, there is often more space for trying different approaches, and for making the necessary mistakes in the process.

If a high level of trust is so important for the wellbeing and growth of people and organisations, how should leaders go about building it? Firstly, by realising that it has, indeed, to be built and earned. Unlike compliance or obedience, trust cannot be demanded. Secondly, by taking the first step, so to speak. Leaders have to invest time and energy in the people within their organisation and create a sense of personal connection. Shared values, vision and goals and clear communication about the intended ways of upholding and achieving them are crucial ingredients. Openness and transparency are also vital for instilling a sense of trust.

Thirdly, leaders need to give trust, and show the people in the organisation that they implicitly and explicitly expect them to want to do the right or necessary things. If the leadership’s default is suspicion, trustworthy and talented people will not be able to do their best work. Think about it: an organisation that is built on lack of trust will have to spend an inordinate amount of time, money and energy on creating rules and protocols, on monitoring, on double- and triple-checking, and on addressing particular behaviours. The people being monitored feel unappreciated, incompetent, and unworthy of recognition and responsibility. They will start feeling unsafe and will become inclined to hide mistakes rather than share them so everyone can learn. The entire culture will become toxic.

“If we can’t trust others, they are less likely to trust us, and the vicious cycle is established.”

Trust between people is often “forced” in a crisis that stems from outside, when they have to rely on each other for their survival (sometimes literally). They may have to look to relative strangers for help and have no time to wonder whether everyone around them can be trusted. Many people reach out and do great work selflessly in times of crisis. I sometimes wish we would realise that most threats to our communities are not from inside, and that trusting each other with important things, also in a non-crisis situation, is not as unsafe as it may feel. I believe that organisations, their leaders and the people within, will be more successful and have a larger chance of thriving if they can be trusting first, and only become untrusting if that trust is proven to be misguided. This principle clearly should not apply when it is evident from the outset that the risks are too high and/or the signs are too telling. I believe that these situations are exceptions, not the rule.

I think to be trusting by default is the most effective and rewarding way of being and behaving in the long run. Most of us have to learn how to do this through hard and focused work though, because it is not how we are wired. We have to make a conscious commitment to believe that our negative experiences of the past are not always the best to guide us for the future. Sure, we may get hurt (again) if our trust gets betrayed (again), and we should not become naïve, but if we always assume the worst in other people, we keep creating our own self-fulfilling prophecy. If we can’t trust others, they are less likely to trust us, and the vicious cycle is established. In that perpetual mind set we will never have the pleasure of finding out that most people are as inherently trustworthy as we, ourselves, are.

For communities and organisations, the best way to excel and focus on the things that truly matter is to grow as much trust as they can within. And make upholding it a responsibility for all. I certainly hope the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority will never have to spend any more money than absolutely necessary on monitoring and technology, when they could be spending it on keeping the Dales as gorgeous as they are. And I take a lot of pride in diligently closing rusty latches.

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