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How to Shift from Asking for Trust to Being Trustworthy

Twice in the last couple of weeks, senior leaders have asked me for examples of trust-building exercises, or instructions for running trust facilitations, as a way to create trust among a group of people who don’t know each other or don’t already trust each other.

But as I said to them, please don’t ask your employees to trust you, or their other managers. Likewise, don’t ask your leadership team to ensure that employees trust their managers or senior leaders — or assume your leaders will trust each other.

There’s no two-hour exercise that can ensure comfort in the moment and also have that trust carry over to the everyday exigencies of being on the job. The idea that you can ask people for their trust and get it is lovely and romantic, but the real world doesn’t work that way. Trust can only be given, and if it’s manipulated, you’ll end up losing it. People may understand that they have to behave in compliant ways, but that doesn’t naturally translate to feelings of trust.

How Can I Be Trustworthy? Let Me Count Some of the Ways

What you can do is show that you are worthy of trust. If you focus on creating conditions in which people can feel safe and secure, and if you and other leaders are careful and consistent, then it’s possible that over time you’ll see trust develop. Here is a just a sampling of trustworthy behaviors and manifestations you may want to focus on.

  • Assume that everyone else has good intentions. Discount any reactive tendency you have to ascribe bad intent. Even if you think there was bad intent, remember it probably comes from a place of fear, and that it’s your challenge to work with it anyway.
  • Whenever there’s a problem, acknowledge what’s true, especially when the problem is the result of any of your own behaviors, reactions, tendencies, weaknesses, or habits.
  • Communicate what you’ll do about recognized issues so employees don’t have to guess.
  • Build confidence in your reliability as a competent colleague and decision-maker. At a minimum, that means show up, on time, prepared, knowledgeable, and visibly ready to work.
  • Admit it when you don’t know the answer. And then return with answers once you’ve found them.
  • Follow through with any commitments you make.
  • Treat people as your moral peers, even if they’re subordinates. That means respecting them and their comments, and not showing off your higher rank, better skills, more prestigious education, or greater compensation.
  • Be aware of your demeanor including your facial expressions and gestures. Be calm around your employees the way you are around kids and dogs, because they’ll know if you’re afraid or angry and acting out.
  • Stop yourself from cutting people off in mid-sentence because you already know what they’re going to say, or you just don’t want to hear it. No putting your hands up as if to block input.
  • Don’t make things about you, how bad you feel, or what you wish had happened. Be conscious of whatever’s going on with them, and deal with it.
  • If you feel wounded in some way, come clean with your advisors and get their perspective on your interpretation of the situation. Don’t overreact or make gross assumptions. The worse you feel, the more you need to hear additional viewpoints — that way, you’re less likely to take things the wrong way or be tempted to seek retribution.
  • Encourage employees to hold you accountable. When you slip, they’ll catch you and ask you to keep going in the right direction. (Yes, this one’s really hard.)
  • If you’ve been out of the loop on a situation, check your facts and find out what’s been going on before leaping in to say what’s wrong or dictate changes.
  • Don’t trash people who are not in the room. (And if you do, assume they’ll hear about it .)
  • Take a moment to consider what you’re saying before you say it. Even, and especially, when you’re under tremendous pressure.
  • Greet people when you see them, and thank them for their participation. If they think you think they don’t matter, they’ll withhold themselves and their contributions.
  • When your directions create conflict among the people on your team, pull them in together and talk it out. Don’t try to balance one against the other; they’ll still feel like they’re fighting, not like you’re helping them.
  • Give timeframes for your responses, and keep to them. When you’ve got too much on your plate, let colleagues know you’ve seen their emails and that it will take you a while to reply, rather than assuming they’ll understand how busy you are.
  • Go back to check to see how things worked out.

There are thousands of actions, communications, and interchanges that can build trust — and probably tens of thousands more that can undermine it. See which behaviors you’re willing to take on consistently, because it’s better to apply one or two reliably and build a solid base than it is to try a bunch and drop them.

Onward and upward —


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