In companies, marriages, communities, and countries, the one foundational key to success is trust. From Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” model, to the research Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny and their team did for the book “Crucial Conversations”, to the more recent team studies done by Google, it has been established over and over that the highest performing teams, the best relationships, and the strongest communities have a high level of trust at their core.
But how do you get there? In my years working in organizations I’ve found that most leaders have trouble even seeing where and how trust is broken, much less knowing the first step towards fixing things. In our nation, lack of trust permeates throughout our political leadership, the news, and even the core systems our country was founded on. Loneliness and depression are at an all-time peak, and we continue to lose lives as we argue about how to protect ourselves from a virus – and from each other.
Trust and psychological safety are concepts we like to talk about, but don’t understand well enough to implement effectively.
In this article I’m going to share three problems that get in the way of our ability to build trust and psychological safety in our relationships, organizations, communities and societies, and then present a model that clarifies the process of trust building with practical steps you can use with any group of people who would like to work together more effectively towards a shared purpose.
Problem One: We See Trust as Something we Have, Not Something we Build
We think of trust as something that exists or doesn’t exist with people who we assess as either trustworthy or not trustworthy. This leaves us powerless in groups or situations where we have judged other people as not trustworthy.
When we think about trust, usually we are thinking about the question, “Can I trust?” and we assess people based on how we believe they will behave towards us over time.
“Can I trust my husband to never leave me?”
“Can I trust my boss to have my best interests at heart?”
“Can I trust my organization to keep me on when times get tough?”
The problem with these questions is that if we’re completely honest the answer is always no. It’s not because people are inherently not trustworthy; it’s simply because we are all human and the world is a complicated place with a lot of interacting variables. We can never make a decision that might not inadvertently hurt someone at some time, despite our best intentions. And we can’t control the variables we can’t control. Your husband might get sick. Your boss might get a promotion. Your organization might lose half its revenue.
If you can never be sure who to trust, you are likely to watch attentively for signs that someone might not be trustworthy and build a case in your mind, based on your interactions with them. If a co-worker doesn’t respond to an e-mail, if you aren’t invited to an important meeting, if your husband misses your anniversary, you’ll take note. There will always be a few people who get under your skin because their approach is so different from yours, or because they communicate in a way that seems disrespectful. Also, many people revert to behaviors that seem childish or self-centered when they get stressed at work. These people will get a lot of “notes”.
With this vigilance, it’s inevitable that you will observe enough negative behaviors in enough other people to prove to yourself that at least some people in your family, group, community, or neighborhood, aren’t trustworthy. And once you have enough evidence to believe that certain people are not to be trusted, it can seem completely impossible to “build trust” or “create safety” with those people. Because how can you build trust with someone who isn’t trustworthy?
But there is a different way to think about trust that is much more empowering. Instead of thinking of trustworthiness as a characteristic that applies to some people and not to others, we can look at trust-building as a process that can be applied to all people. This might feel like a stretch, but let’s look for a minute at how trust develops:
Trust grows as we get to know people. First, we feel affinity when we learn we have something in common. Over time we get to know people more deeply, understanding how they think and feel about things. But the threshold point, when real trust is solidified, is when something goes wrong, and you learn you can depend on each other to work through it.
One example of this are the studies showing that customers show more loyalty to a company when they’ve had a problem and it was resolved than to a company they’ve never had an issue with. You may have experienced something similar in your relationships: that closeness that comes from having a misunderstanding and then working through it gives you a sense that you can depend on someone to be there through the next misunderstanding as well. Teams that work through issues and make decisions well together also create this sense of mutual dependability.
There’s still an underlying question going on in the back of our minds that assesses whether or not it’s “safe” to be with this person or group: “If things go wrong, can I trust that we’ll do our best together to work things out?”
This question is still an assessment, but it is not developed based on a judgment of someone’s character, which is static. Instead, it’s based on working through an experience with someone, intentionally going through a process of getting to know each other and working through issues together – and that is something you can control.
With this thinking, it becomes possible to work on building trust, no matter who the people are or what the situation is.
Problem Two: Cognitive Biases
We don’t take neuroscience into account and thus fall victim to our cognitive biases.
Our brain is programmed to scan for threats and react to them. This is a great survival skill when we are in the wilderness, but it also causes us to read negative tone into e-mail, make up negative stories about people’s motives when they don’t include us in meetings or decisions, and characterize people as disrespectful, inconsiderate, or “bad”, when they do or say something that offends us. Here are two examples of specific brain biases that affect our inclination to trust or not trust others, along with an antidote, or deliberate action you can take to free you at least partially from the bias:
- Our brain tends to categorize people into “us” or “them”. People in the “us” category we trust because they seem to be similar to us and therefore safer to be with. People who seem different or unfamiliar automatically fall into the “them” category and we treat them with suspicion until we get to know them. To overcome this bias, seek out people who seem different from you and consciously make an effort to notice what you have in common.
- When people behave in a way that affects us negatively, our brain looks for an explanation, filling in holes with “worst-case scenario” assumptions. Without access to the perspectives of others, we tend to come up with distorted, self-centered stories that make the situations all about us. For example, if a friend doesn’t respond to a text – the first explanation we wonder about is whether the friend is upset with us. If a co-worker doesn’t respond to a request for help on a project we assume he or she “doesn’t care”. If we get interrupted or treated badly we wonder “what we did to deserve it” which is based on the assumption that the behavior is about us. These thoughts fly through our heads so fast they are hard to catch, but to overcome this bias, all we need to do is notice the thoughts as a first “threat-influenced” reaction, and re-think our interpretations. Most people have busy lives and we are far from the most important thing that influences their behavior. Most people have good intentions or at least self-absorbed intentions – trying to get something solved or accomplished. Usually when their behavior harms us it’s collateral damage they are not paying attention to.
Problem Three: Trust Erodes if You Don’t Actively Maintain it
We don’t notice how trust naturally erodes over time, so we fail to implement systems that counteract the erosion.
Trust naturally erodes over time, especially in groups or situations where stress is present for long periods of time. This concept is important because it’s not obvious or apparent. You would think that once you got to know people better, trust would naturally continue to build over time, not erode.
The problem is that we don’t continuously do the work we need to do in order to understand what’s going on in each other’s heads. At best, we tend to know each other superficially, even members of our own family. Half the time we aren’t even that interested. Our brain is lazy and likes to make simplified characterizations of others while indulging in our own goals, problems, thoughts and dreams. We don’t really listen well to other people, and even when we try to listen, we rarely understand the depth of another person’s experiences or perspectives.
Before you get defensive, ask yourself, how often have you felt deeply heard and understood by another person? Most people I ask this question to are surprised at how rarely they have felt heard or understood – maybe by one or two people in their entire lives – if they are lucky. It’s actually quite difficult to get into someone else’s head and see things from their perspective. It requires a lot of effort, and unless we have a compelling reason to put forth that effort, most of us don’t think much about it.
This is why we miscommunicate and have misunderstandings. We don’t fully hear and understand each other when we talk, and those little misunderstandings add up to bigger misunderstandings over time. Add to that the discomfort we have about admitting that we’ve been hurt or taken aback by something someone said or did – and most misunderstandings do NOT get resolved or even mentioned until they’ve gone on long enough to cause deep rifts in relationships. If you add stress to the mix, this compounds misinterpretations tenfold, because now people are looking for threats or malicious intent.
Luckily, there is a way to become what I call “an agent of trust”, working specific actions into your way of being that constantly work against the natural erosion and towards a higher degree of trust and psychological safety. You can lead an effort of trust building in your organization no matter where you sit in the hierarchy. Each one of us has the ability to make a powerful positive difference by using the simple steps described in our trust-building model, which will be introduced in part 2 of this blog series coming soon.