Building Trust in a Low Trust Era

B. Kim Barnes
Originally Published on LinkedIn, August 17, 2015

Photo ©B. Kim Barnes

A few years ago, author Connie Cass cited an Associated Press poll showing that nearly two-thirds of the Americans in their sample had low trust in others – compared to only one-third in a similar poll forty years earlier. It’s easy to blame this on increasing urbanization, on the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to informing us about the world, on greater use of the internet with fewer face-to-face social interactions, or perhaps the increasing rancor of our politics has “tribalized” our society and set us against one another.

Regardless of the cause, this is an issue that has an impact on our personal and professional lives and can reduce our satisfaction and happiness at work. Many recent surveys, beginning with the well-known 1999 Gallup survey, have shown an enormous increase in engagement when people report having a “best friend” at work. Organizations depend on teamwork more than ever before. Both friendship and teamwork depend largely on trust. The Merriam- Webster Dictionary defines trust as the “belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.”

In our Inspirational Leadership workshop, we identify three leadership behaviors that engender trust, both between the leader and the led and among those who work together, whether regularly or on an ad-hoc basis. These include:

  • Identify with other: Putting yourself in the other’s shoes; demonstrating empathy
  • Disclose: Offering relevant information about yourself that costs you something to acknowledge
  • Empower: Providing the other with the authority and resources they need to achieve results.

Identifying with another person in an informed and accepting way (without necessarily agreeing) communicates an interest in the other person and a willingness to see things from his or her point of view. Disclosing information that makes you somewhat vulnerable invites the other person to open up and lowers the barrier to the honest exchange of information. Empowering others by offering support and needed resources while assuming that they are competent and worthy of your respect (and thus don’t require monitoring) frees them to take action with confidence.

In today’s fast-moving, team-based organizations, trust is essential. We need to share information efficiently. We need to give one another space to provide the value that each of us brings to the team. We need to know that we can count on others to deliver on their commitments and to be honest about intentions, mistakes, concerns, or disagreements.

In the past, we expected trust to develop over time, that we had to earn it – but doing business in the 21st century means that we don’t have the luxury of time to allow trust to grow incrementally. The best teams assume and act as if everyone is worthy of trust right from the start. You don’t have to earn it, but if you are dishonest, fail to keep agreements, or treat others with disrespect, you will find that trust, once lost, is very difficult to regain.

In another post (“Influence vs. Manipulation: Will You Build or Destroy Trust”) I’ve discussed the difference between influence and manipulation and how your choice of approach can affect the level of trust on your team and in your other important relationships.

[1]Inspirational Leadership: Encouraging Others to Do Great Things (TM) is a program of Barnes & Conti Associates, Inc.

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