In part one of our Getting Trust Right series, we discussed three obstacles to trust-building (you can read part one here). Despite these obstacles, 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 using the model we’re sharing here.
The most important point to understand from the model below is that trust is dynamic, always in motion, always changing, in relationships, families, teams, organizations and communities. No one person within any group or system can control the whole system, but every single one of us can and does influence the systems we are in with our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
The conscious choice that is yours to make is whether or not you want to be an agent of trust, using your energy to move the whole system towards a safer environment where everyone can thrive and perform, or, by default, do you want to be part of the erosion?
In the model below I’ve noted three major stages on the road to a more trusting, psychologically safe environment, and three major stages that naturally occur as the system erodes into a harmful, destructive environment.
Let’s start with the natural process of trust erosion. Even if you start out in a good environment, where people generally like each other, unexpected misunderstandings always happen. Someone forgot to do a task that another person depended on. Someone blurts out an opinion that shocks someone else. People make mistakes. People get tired. People get stressed. People break down. In stage one of trust erosion, people generally tolerate or ignore these misunderstandings because the idea of having a conversation about them seems like more effort than it’s worth. We worry what people will think of us, and we aren’t sure how to disagree without rocking the boat. We’re often oblivious to things we’ve said and done that upset others (since they never tell us) and so we keep doing them. For the most part, we are avoiding “the talk” because it will require a lot of energy and may make things worse.
Stage One: Unresolved Misunderstandings
In stage one of trust erosion – most of what happens is under the surface, not talked about, and not even noticed by most. If you notice anything, it’s a slight tension in the air, people not speaking up as much at meetings, or engaging as much with each other. Most people ignore these signs even if they pick up on them, because even the thought of doing something about it feels draining. So usually, phase one naturally slides down to phase two.
Stage Two: Negative Character Attributions
In phase two people are no longer giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Some people refuse to talk to each other or work with each other. People now have opinions about the character of each other. This is often when a manager starts getting frustrated and wishing people would just work out their differences and get along. What that manager doesn’t realize is that by this point that ship has sailed. We’ve already gotten to the point where people have categorized each other as “not trustworthy” and from that frame of reference there is no real resolving of issues. They can fake it as best they can to get through an event or a meeting or a project, but the fun and engagement are gone and the people in conflict only interact when they have to. These issues are also often avoided, mostly because at this stage minds are made up and intervention is difficult. So, trust erosion continues into stage three.
Stage Three: Us vs Them
Stage three is where people start taking sides. Cliques and silos form and war with each other. Conflicts become personal. People villainize each other and justify hurtful behavior to those outside their in-group. While people can survive in these environments and even perform, they generally aren’t close to their potential, and being together is more an experience of stress and drain than joy and engagement.
The good news is that no matter where you are in the circle, no matter how bad the environment is, you can always do the work of building trust. In the next blog post, we’ll share the three stages of trust-building, and you can navigate these stages with simple and consistent actions. Over time, these actions can change the tide and move your team, family, community, organization to a place of power and productivity.