The Anatomy of Trust
We may find it hard to define but we certainly know when we lose trust with either a person, group or an organization. When we lose trust we withdraw our energy and level of engagement. We go on an internal strike, not wanting to give to the other person who has hurt or wrongly treated us (according to our values). We may not show it overtly, but internally we feel less need to tell the trust, share what is important to us, or to follow through on commitments. We pull back and feel less part of the other. Loss of trust is sometimes obvious, and sometimes hidden, as we pretend to be present but inwardly disengage. So loss of trust may be real to us, but the leader or other person who has done something to lose trust may remain clueless.
Trust is a name for the glue that makes people feel that they want to be part of a relationship. We feel a shared purpose and are willing to depend on each other. If it is an organization, we feel ready to do what the organization needs, and do it willingly. We are willing not just to offer our presence but also to share our inner thoughts about how the relationship or group is working.
Trust can be high or low. If it is low, we limit our involvement and what we are willing to do or share. We say, well, this much is what you deserve. Internally, we have a calculus of trust where we punish by limiting what we give, and reward by giving more. But more often then not, this inner calculus is hidden and not shared, though its effects may be clear.
The hiddenness and personal nature of trust is a problem for relationships, teams and organizations. How do you fix something that cannot be expressed or shared? How do you even know it is lost? Paradoxically, you need at least some trust in order to discuss it and repair it.
Trust is very often about leadership and power. To be effective a leader must earn the trust of his or her constituents. Power and leadership can be prescribed but the presence of trust, which means the willing participation of the other members, is not a given. Any relationship, leader to follower, consultant or coach to client, or between spouses, siblings or friends, can have a shared task, but the presence of trust must be earned and sustained. Trust that is earned can be quickly lost, but it has been observed it cannot be quickly regained once lost. If a relationship or team loses trust with each other, it takes a great deal of repair work to restore it. People are not quick to reinvest in a relationship where trust has been broken.
Trust is an umbrella concept, an internal feeling that stems from a cluster of aspects of a relationship. It is useful to look at the nature of trust as containing several qualities, the absence of any of which will diminish the trust between the people or groups. Some of the qualities of trust are:
Reliable and dependable: A person or group does what it says it will, fulfills commitments that it makes. They are good to their word, so the other can “trust” what they say they will do.
Transparent: People are anxious about what they don’t know, and often tend to assume the worst when they don’t know why something is done. When a person shares what is going on within them, their feelings and considerations, or what an organization or team, usually through the team leader, shares what is going on, the other person feels more trust because they understand what is going on. When a management team meets in secret, or does not share important information about policies, changes or outside events, the team members tend to develop distrust about what they don’t know.
Competence: This is an obvious and often neglected element, yet one that is central. If you don’t think the other person, or leader, or organization is capable of doing what it is supposed to do, you cannot trust them. So, a person who wants to do something, or intends to, but is not capable, cannot win your trust.
Sincere, Authentic and Congruent: People often sense that what other people are saying is not aligned with what they feel inside. A leader can be seen as insincere or inauthentic when people just don’t believe what he or she is saying. A leader who says one thing but who has acted differently in the past is not congruent. It is hard to believe someone who says they want to listen who does not give you a chance to speak, for example, or one who says she is concerned about people and who seems to have a plan to lay people off. A person may think they hide their true feelings or contradictions, but trust is eroded because other people are sometimes quickly able to detect the lack of sincerity or congruence.
Fairness: Some people seem to act as if other people are not important and others seem to listen and try to act in ways that respect both sides. Distrust arises when a person does not seem to be allowing the other person to have a place and room for what they want and need. A relationship where things are all about one person, and a workplace where things are all about the company or the leader, does not allow others to really trust them.
All of these elements roll up into a global assessment of how much a person trusts another. In order to build trust a leader or an individual must open the conversation about the degree to which each of these are present, and be open to hearing from the other about what they feel, observe and need. And paradoxically, they need a bit of trust in the other in order to begin to do this.