There is no greater gift than someone’s trust, and no more foundational component to a healthy relationship. Without trust, healthy conflict cannot take place, commitments fall through, accountability suffers, and ultimately results are non-existent.
Patrick Lencioni, in his seminal work “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” noted that trust is the first pillar of a functioning team — without it, all other elements fail. To earn trust, it’s important to understand the components and how to “build” each bucket (more here, and here).
The three components of trust are — Assumed, Vulnerable, and Associative. Here is each of the three broken down:
As a kid, I loved setting up dominoes in elaborate set-ups, seeing how many I could stack up and how many obstacles I could cover. One by one, I’d set each domino roughly 1/2 inch away from the previous domino, making sure that they lined up in a neat row. It was painstaking to set up each domino one by one. The trick was having a steady hand — any jumpy movements would topple the whole design before it was done. A mistake would ruin the whole set-up, and you’d have to start back at the beginning, painfully setting up each domino all over again.
Setting up dominoes takes a long time, but the payoff at the end makes it all worth it.
What Lencioni refers to as “predictive trust” — we refer to as assumed trust. And just like setting up dominoes, assumed trust is built one behavior and one action at a time. It is time and behavior dependent — the more consistent the behavior over time, the more likely others are going to assume you will act in the same way. The longer we know someone and the more engagement we have, the more pieces are placed on the timeline and the more likely we are to trust that person will behave the same way.
Consider the people in your life you knew growing up, your siblings, parents, long-standing colleagues. You know where each of them stand on the “trust scale,” and you can predict with a good deal of certainty how they will behave in any given situation.
Over time, we build the story of that person in our minds — based on experience — and we begin to look for evidence that it’s true (predicting and assuming a certain behavior). Any “out-of-character” behavior that is a minor offense to our sense of trust can be forgiven- for example, if your sibling, who is usually quite responsible, did something out of character like forget a birthday, you likely won’t stop talking to them entirely. You might be concerned for a short time, but go back to assuming they will be responsible again.
When behavior falls well outside of the timeline of assumed behavior (a marital affair after 15 years of marriage, stealing from the company after 5 years of excellent performance, etc.) that breaches the narrative that has been created, then all the behavior that came before the incident loses credibility, and the story is drastically shifted. It’s the same as having a shaky hand when setting up dominoes — everything that was built falls down and you start all over again. Now though, you have the knowledge of what it looked like before, and the thought of rebuilding is even more daunting than it was the first time. Doubt will prevail over the assumption of trust.
This realm of trust is the fastest path to building trust with someone else, and requires a person (both people, really) to express vulnerability. Vulnerability is the act of exposing yourself to possible harm, rejection, or scrutiny in the effort to connect beyond the surface level relationship. For instance, a person that says: “I made a mistake, and I should not have taken that action,” or stating you don’t know the answer, admitting your fear, apologizing without attachments (not — I’m sorry, but you were mean to me, rather — I’m sorry for what I said, I shouldn’t have done that) — these are all examples of vulnerable trust.
This type of vulnerability exposes your honest self and acts as an invitation to the other person to meet you there. As John Gottman would call them, they are bids for connection. They serve as an invitation into trust, as opposed to a barrier to building a connection.
Taking vulnerability a step further, inviting the vulnerability of others will fundamentally shift the way you work and create relationships — it is the fastest path to earning the trust of others. Earning requires work, it means it’s not given, you have to put in effort. The path to earning trust is outlined in more detail below, but first, the final component of trust.
*An important note in thinking about vulnerability is to consider “what’s it for?”
Dysfunction can be mistaken for vulnerability. In the realm of building trust with others, the act of being vulnerable must carry with it the intent to serve the other person or to build the relationship, not to solely serve the person who is “vulnerable.”
This element of trust is defined by the stories that others tell about you. We have the least amount of influence or control over this component of trust. As you meet with someone new, they may have heard stories about you (either good or bad) that begin to shape an understanding or expectation of you. Or, in the matter of race/gender/ability/religion (and so many more), we have stereotypes that influence our gauge of trust with someone before we even engage with them. The stories that others tell (individuals, communities, or in the case of stereotypes, society) influence the way others perceive us and the way we perceive others.
That’s where this next piece fits in…
The benefit of the doubt…
For each of us, there is a starting point with trust when we engage someone new or with someone we don’t engage with often. And we don’t all land on the same starting line. This is where the benefit of the doubt fits in. If you look like me, come from the same town as me, talk like me, have mutual connections, you start farther ahead — there are already dominoes in place when we arrived. We are much more likely to assume trust and let go of doubt.
If you are different from me, different race, different language, different profession, different family structure, or “not from around here,” — you start farther back on the line. You may have to go find your own dominoes, let alone set them up by yourself, just to get to where someone who looks like me and talks like me started.
The benefit of the doubt is an unconscious tape that we play in our heads. It’s our gut reaction to someone we meet for the first time (Here’s a brilliant piece on the benefit of the doubt from Seth Godin on the Akimbo Podcast). Our biases show up here — fairly or unfairly — and we have to actively resist our biases and negative assumptions to move the needle on associative trust. As Margaret Wheatley noted in “Turning to One Another,” — “It’s not our differences that divide us, it’s our judgements that do.”
We Need to Feel Safe in Order to Trust
We have a fundamental need, as humans, to be seen, to belong. In his book, “Thrive by Design,” Don Rheem shares the neuroscience that we as humans are hardwired for connection. We each actively seek emotional safety and abundant social resources (trusted relationships). The problem in most organizations and communities is that this need is often left unfulfilled.
If we are hardwired for this connection, we as leaders and as those that seek to make it better, can earn trust by recognizing this fundamental need and fulfilling that carnal request. So what do we do? How do we move the needle on trust — not just so others will trust us, but so we can be leaders who trust those around us?
As Google discovered during their study, Project Oxygen, the number one element for team success was psychological safety (more here). Without that sense of safety, the work would inevitably suffer.
With the three elements of trust as the foundational framework, you can design an approach that leverages the three elements of trust to take action in earning trust.
Here are the steps you can take:
When you understand the elements of trust, you can leverage that knowledge to build practices in your organization that increase trust for individuals, teams, and across the business.
We have a workshop designed to support you in developing trust in your organization called “The Leadership of Trust”. Click here for more information.