Lately, with the news worldwide being somewhat bleak, I thought I’d write about trust -— since it seems to be waning a bit. Trust is something we commonly talk about in business, in leadership, in politics. It’s something we aspire to build and yet still seems challenging to grasp. So here’s my attempt to define trust and how it manifests in our lives.
The obligatory dictionary definition of trust (from Merriam-Webster) defines it as a “belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective.” Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says trust is foundational and that building it requires vulnerability, which means apologizing to our family and friends, and to business colleagues when we’ve messed up; or getting real about what we don’t understand or when we need help.
But in working with people for years, I have come to believe that reliability is the most important factor in determining whether someone will earn trust. The root of reliable is a verb: to rely. We can do something actionable and see our trustworthiness grow.
Another important ingredient of trust is the pattern we each establish, as that shows others if we are worthy of their trust in the first place. Like wakes that cut through water following a boat, people create patterns of behavior and communication that tell us a lot about one another — if we pay attention. We need to understand our patterns when trying to help one another grow, and we hold each other accountable with whether we grant our trust or not.
The 80/20 rule (where 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work) relates to patterns of reliability. Played out in volunteer organizations all the time, leadership asks the same 20 percent for help because those people have established a pattern of reliably getting the work done. They are trustworthy. While the other 80 percent are most likely trustworthy in other areas of their lives, they may not be recognizably reliable in a volunteer capacity. So after uneasy experiences that leave other people “holding the bag,” leaders no longer bother to ask the less reliable person for help. Which brings me to my next point:
Trust is a two-way street that ebbs and flows. Just because we may not be seen as reliable in one area does not mean we aren’t reliable in others. Patterns change based on the context in which we find ourselves. Some people and groups bring out the best in us, while other people and groups may bring out a less flattering side. This leaves the impression for some that I might be eminently reliable and trustworthy, while others might think your positive impression of me shows you’ve gone mad. But regardless of comfort, aspiring to be fair in how we relate to each other is a noble pursuit. Additionally, people are often invested in not seeing a particularly unflattering pattern or truth if it belongs to someone close to us or someone with whom we identify. Denial is the result of ignoring the evidence if it doesn’t match our narratives, causing us to trust blindly. Trust is fluid in these ways.
In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey Jr. has devised a nifty little formula that actually measures the fluidity of trust: “As trust goes down, the speed of getting stuff done goes down and the costs go up.” This makes perfect sense. Covey uses the example of air travel post-Sept. 11. Basically overnight, getting on an airplane took significantly more time as passengers waited in long, slow-moving lines for more burdensome security checks. Trust fell sharply after Sept. 11, and the costs of expanding TSA and lost time to travelers both soared. Conversely, the opposite formula is also true: “As trust goes up, the speed of getting things done goes up and the costs go down.” Asking the most reliable performers for help means projects will likely get done faster (since you don’t have to coax foot-draggers) and costs go down with time and resources saved.
Once trust is established, treat it like a glass ball — it’s easily broken. The golden rule applies here: If two people share confidences with each other, and one person keeps the confidence while the other person blabs, then the blabber might be on the road to establishing a pattern of unreliability. Once the pattern becomes clear to the more trustworthy of the two, she will likely decide not to share thoughts with the untrustworthy friend. We have several fun sayings that speak to the issue of trustworthiness and patterns: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” “All hat, no cattle” and, my favorite, “You teach people how to treat you.”
At the end of the day, it is up to each of us to honestly ask ourselves what kind of wake we leave behind us. Are we reliable and fair? If so, is it with most people or only a select few? What problematic pattern is right in front of our face, yet we refuse to see? At what cost? What highly reliable pattern do we take for granted and forget to acknowledge? At what cost?
No matter what’s happening in the world or in our offices, we as individuals have a responsibility to think about our trustworthiness. We leave wakes that teach people how to treat us.