Trust me, I’m a…
Post-truth or Lies?
We live in what is euphemistically-called a ‘post-truth’ world. Lies are now acceptable in public office so long as they are delivered with conviction and aplomb. Teams of fact-checkers now need to be employed to separate the fact from the fiction, because we can no longer trust what people are telling us. Can we even trust the fact-checkers? This global breakdown in trust has dire consequences, because without trust we live in chaos.
Imagine what driving down a single-file carriageway would be like if we didn’t implicitly trust other drivers to stay in their lane as they drove towards us. Imagine flicking a switch in our homes if we didn’t implicitly trust the electricity supply to be safe. And imagine working with colleagues who are so terrified you’ll steal their knowledge that they work desperately to keep it to themselves. When trust is absent, the world is a scary place.
“Trust me, I’m a doctor”, said Harold Shipman, before he went on to kill many of his elderly patients. The sad thing is, they did trust him: with their lives.
Trust is repeatedly in the top-five list for qualities we most expect from our leaders and colleagues. Without it, relationships are a mess, and working environments are toxic. Divisions, guardedness, protectionism and paranoia inevitably follow when trust is eroded. With it, people feel safe to make decisions, take risks, try things out, and ask for help.
Where trust thrives, we trust each other and are trusted in return. We don’t feel the need to police and monitor each other; and we have confidence in the skills, intentions and abilities of those around us. This enables us all to get on with our jobs in an efficient and productive way.
Where trust is assumed but not earned, people feel they have a God-given right to be trusted without demonstrating any of the trust credentials that are necessary. Managers and Leaders might assume that they should be trusted because of their elevated status, but what are they doing to earn that trust through their daily interactions with their staff? “Trust me, I’m a manager” is no more comforting than “trust me, I’m a doctor”. It has a hollow ring unless backed up with solid evidence. Trust is the result of something else. It is an outcome, and is therefore reliant on certain behavioural conditions being met. And once broken, it takes a very long time to heal.
Understanding why we are trusted and what makes us trust another person is a crucial lesson to learn. It’s crucial because as soon as we take that trust for granted, we are in danger of losing it.
The Qualities of Trust
Maister, Green and Galford have postulated that trust is based on three elements which need to be elevated and one that needs to be played down. Their Trust Equation looks like this:
Credibility, Reliability and Intimacy are all required for people to feel safe, reassured and confident in their dealings with us. Intimacy is the degree to which we can discuss difficult topics with each other, without fear of that sensitive information being used against us. But all of these qualities will crash and burn, according to this Trust Equation, if Self-Orientation holds sway. You see, we need to believe that the person we are dealing with has our best interests at heart and will, if necessary, prioritise those over their own. As soon as we see that they are putting themselves first, we start to doubt their intentions towards us.
So, if I am to trust you, I need to know that you know what you are talking about and have the qualifications or experience to behind you. This is your credibility: you have the credentials associated with your area of interest or specialism.
Then I need to know that you will deliver what you promise, every time. That way, I’m never left in any doubt about the outcome, once you have committed to me.
Thirdly, I need to know that anything I share with you will be held in confidence. If I believe this, I will share a whole lot more with you, and feel safe that you won’t divulge it or use it against me at a later date. I will also want to know that you are not holding back on keeping me ‘in the know’ about things I need to know about.
Finally, it’s really important that I know you care about me. Of course, I know you also care about yourself (as you should), but I want to believe that you will protect me, even at personal cost to yourself. I need to know that when the going gets tough, I’m not going to be hung out to dry to save your skin. It’s vital to me that you show genuine interest and concern in me and my well-being.
Failing in any one of these four areas will diminish, if not kill trust. That’s why we have to be mindful of our actions and ensure we are promoting them with each interaction. Trust is fragile: hard to gain, easy to lose. It can quickly be undermined.
I love this model and I refer to it frequently in my training and consultancy work. But for me there is one component missing.
I can put up with someone’s failings around Credibility and Reliability so long as they have Humility. A lack of appropriate experience doesn’t automatically invalidate them, or make them untrustworthy; and as long as they keep me informed if, for any reason, it looks like they might not be able to give me what they promised when they promised it, I will be inclined towards forgiveness. It isn’t one instance of poor customer service that damages relationships, but how companies respond when they are at fault.
Humility is the quality that allows us to own up to our failings even before they are noticed by others. It is demonstrated in the way we apologise for our errors, and seek forgiveness. And humility stems from a deep-seated confidence that says, “I know I’m not perfect and, whilst I seek to improve, I should never have to hide my imperfection from others”.
Trust with Humility
Without humility, we are more likely to want to present ourselves as right. We are less likely to confess, show our vulnerability, and seek redemption. And it is these qualities that attract us to other human beings. Research appears to show that we are more likely to trust someone and care about them if they show us ‘their human-side’, by which we mean, their frailty.
Trust is the absolute bedrock of any relationship. In teams, it is the single most important contributor to performance. Without it, the whole foundation crumbles. That’s why is must be first and central within any team development programme; before communication (which is meaningless without trust); before setting objectives (which are random without trust); and before the team agrees how best it will distribute its work (which will be futile without trust).