4 min read

Why Leaders & Teams Have Trust All Wrong

Sep 13, 2021 9:49:52 AM

“It takes time to build trust.”

“Trust doesn’t happen overnight.”

“Once you lose trust, you’ll never get it back.”

I cringe a little every time I hear statements like these uttered by leaders. I cringe because these statements reflect a gross misunderstanding of what trust truly is. These statements are also uniquely problematic given the ease with which they are agreed with, accepted as fact, and therefore repeated.

Across the teams I coach, I am currently engaged with over two dozen senior leaders. I field, on a given week, three to five calls per day from these leaders and members of their teams to help address interpersonal dynamics between them. In almost every case, the problem they are wrestling with can tie its origins back to an issue of trust.

Why is that? Why are so many teams, and the people on those teams, struggling to trust each other? Have we become so inherently guarded that mistrust is our default posture? Have we become so insular and territorial that the thought of trusting someone now feels foreign?

The skeptics may hold these points of view. I however am an incurable optimist. I believe our collective issues with trust, both in the workplace and beyond it, can be almost entirely attributed to the fact that most of us simply do not understand what trust is. Perhaps more accurately, we think we know what trust is, are in fact mistaken, yet because we profess to KNOW what trust is, we fail to question our views of it allowing false notions of trust to permeate our teams. I therefore believe a more clinical discussion of trust offers immense benefit for all.

First, let’s start with what trust is not. It is not some ethereal phenomenon that magically exists between people. When we view trust as a phenomenon it betrays its true nature which is the fact that trust is a process. Processes are, by definition, both repeatable and learnable. Phenomena are not. Understanding that trust is a process helps to dispel one of the myths above, that it takes time to build. Trust is not built over time. Trust is built over repetitions. You can choose to run 30 of these repetitions today or you can choose to run 3. Choose the latter, and yes, it will take more time to build trust. However, that is an issue of your decision-making, not the nature of trust itself.

So, what is the process? For that we need look no further than the definition of trust put forth in the Integrative Model of Organizational Trust:

“Trust is exposing oneself to harm, but then not being harmed.”

That’s it. Step one: expose yourself to harm. Step two: receive no harm. Each time you expose yourself to harm, and the harm you are expecting doesn’t happen, trust forms. The same applies in the reverse. If you are looking to have someone trust you, expose them to some potential harm. Then, do everything necessary to ensure that no harm comes to them. Each time you do this, they will learn to trust you more and more. As I said, repetitions.

This is where I see so many leaders, especially emerging leaders, fail inadvertently. They do not expose their people to enough harm. In fact, they do the opposite. They are so paranoid of being seen as a ‘bad leader’ that they bubble wrap their people with their words and actions, thinking that protecting them is how they show their mettle as a leader. It is not. If it was, I’d be out of a job.

Now that you see trust as a process we can focus on the 'abilities' required to run that process: Vulnerability and Accountability.

Vulnerability is the willingness to expose oneself to harm. Fail to expose yourself to harm and the process of trust cannot begin. You don't feel the need to trust someone if you aren't a little bit uneasy. Feelings of unease only happen when you're exposed to harm.

The APA’s definition of accountability is, “the extent to which an individual is answerable to another for their decisions or judgements”. Once someone exposes themselves to harm, if the other party fails to make the decisions required to prevent them from experiencing that harm, then the process of trust cannot complete.

What all this means is, as a leader you must look for opportunities to be vulnerable daily. When you become vulnerable you must also give your people the tools to allow them to make better decisions, increasing their ability to be accountable to you.

You must also look for opportunities to encourage vulnerability in those you lead. When you do this, YOU are the one whose decision-making is now front and centre. Power dynamics ensure that it takes a lot for someone to be vulnerable with their leader. It is a crime to get someone to overcome that obstacle, only to kill the trust that could have been built because you made a poor decision after the fact.

Of course both vulnerability and accountability are enhanced when people work on their EQ. Each behavioural type ‘experiences harm’ differently and each behavioural type also struggles to hold themselves accountable to different decisions. If the model of trust I’ve put forward in this post resonates with you, the first thing you should do if investigate a way to grow your team’s EQ. Our WorkplaceEQ framework was built specifically for this, however any validated psychometric program should give you the basics to get started.

So, to close, your homework is:

  • Learn how you and your people individually ‘experience harm’.
  • Learn where you and your people make unconscious decisions that may derail accountability.
  • Start promoting vulnerability coupled with accountability as many times per day as possible.

The sooner you get started, the sooner you will see a dramatic, positive shift in your teams.

Trust me.

Shane Wallace

Written by Shane Wallace

Shane is the Founder & CEO of CultureSmith Inc. He works with leaders and teams of high-growth organizations to help them overcome the behavioural and emotional issues that prevent their growth. Leveraging the CultureSmith Growth & Sustainability Framework, Shane helps demystify the the theories of Psychological Safety, Emotional Intelligence and Servant Leadership to turn companies into places people care about.