03 Jun 2016

On Trust

‘The glue that holds all relationships together - including the relationship between the leader and the led - is trust, and trust is based on integrity.’ Brian Tracy

There’s a ton of tripe talked about trust. Trust is one of the most abused words in leadership. It’s assumed to be important but it’s more often talked about rather than acted on. There’s an expectation that it will be there in any organisation, but rarely is the hard work to make it happen analysed or discussed. The bottom line is this - it has to be earned. And to begin with, the traffic is one way. Thoughtful leaders realise it is no use bemoaning that their colleagues and those who report to them don't trust them, unless they themselves have done the work first.

Sensible leaders understand that If we want to receive trust we have to trust people first. There is no other way, it does not work from the bottom up, it works from the top down. First, let’s consider what it is like when trust doesn't exist in an organisation. The biggest thing that happens is that everything takes longer. Why, because everyone is second guessing about what the right thing is to do, rather than going ahead with what they instinctively know is right. Very few people set out to do a rubbish job, most are not lazy and all can recognise the deep satisfaction of a job well done. So when trust is absent, those higher qualities get submerged under the fear of potentially dong the wrong thing. So, for very basic starters if we want our organisations to be slicker, more efficient and potentially happier, more rewarding places to work, we need to grapple with trust.

So, why are some reluctant to offer trust before receiving it. Why is this difficult? Well, it is risky, things might go wrong. Well what if they do? Most of us are not involved in brain surgery, so if things go wrong, it’s not normally life threatening. So leaders who understand the importance of trust, take a deep breath and work out what it means to offer trust. For starters, trust needs to be talked about. It is as simple as saying ‘I trust you.’ ‘I trust you to get this right.’ ‘It’s not the end of the world if this goes wrong, why don’t you try it and see.’ So if the message goes out loud and strong that people are to be trusted and that mistakes are not only ok but are the springboards for new learning, then leaders in return need to be open about their own mistakes. Not every one and not in every gory detail, but enough to let colleagues know that there is no such thing as perfection, that personal and professional growth come from reflection about what has gone right as well as what sometimes goes wrong.

Leaders who get this right are prepared to take risks. There might not be a clear cut route through to the right outcome, but the trust comes when we say I think you can do this, and I’m here to talk things through if they don’t. Taking a small leap of faith pays dividends. Everyone deserves a chance to shine. This is particularly powerful when it is accompanied by the words “I know you won’t let me down’. The risk is also there on the part of the person being trusted of course. They are likely to be worried about ‘failing’ particularly if the process or the product or the event is public. They are very likely to be moving out of their comfort zone, so the important thing is to let them know that it is ok to feel uncomfortable.

Growth only comes through doing new things in unfamiliar settings and under new rules. It’s not easy, but it does feel good when we have done it. Good leaders get this. And they know the importance of making the implicit explicit. So, after an event, the sensitive leader will check in and ask ‘how do you feel ow that you have done this?’ They will encourage them to think about the before and after. Before, their colleague will have been feeling uncertain, nervous and possibly feel like running away. After, they are likely to feel a real sense of accomplishment, an adrenaline rush and a quiet pride. This needs to be talked about and acknowledged, so the next time they do something new and out of their comfort zone they can drawn on this sense of achievement, it is lodged deep in their psyche and will propel them with confidence to the next piece of work.

This pausing to reflect on the process is one of the most powerful ways in which trust is embedded. Tope leaders are showing that they see potential in their colleagues which they don't perhaps see themselves. This deep faith in another human being makes the process of trust concrete. Rather than some airy fairy nice thing to have.

What then happens is that the person on the receiving end of the trust understands at a deep level how deeply satisfying this is. They have been trusted to do new work, take on a higher profile, talk in front of a group, all of which were terrifying before they actually did it. Then they did it and understood. They are now in a position to offer this to others.

Top leaders create a safety net, where it is ok to make mistakes. There are no recriminations, only discussion about what might be better. A psychological safe space is the crucial element of creating trust. And a sense of humour which means that nothing needs to be taken that seriously. Because after all, mostly this isn't brain surgery, and no-one is going to die.

(A chapter from 'High Challenge, Low Threat' available from Amazon)


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