One of the most important components of a healthy, functional workplace is trust. And yet in many ways, trust remains a little elusive. We all know what it is, even though we rarely put it into words. Allow me to try: trust is to believe in someone despite uncertainty. We can never fully know a person’s thoughts, intentions, motives, competencies, and so on, even those folks we’ve known for a long time. There is always uncertainty in any relationship, but this is especially the case when we have just met someone. Trust then is a belief that often strengthens, or fades, as evidence presents itself.
Yet trust is more of a feeling than a rational calculation. We certainly all know how it can be broken, and we instinctively build it—but can we describe the process of building trust in words? Can we teach it? How does a manager, employee, or even a facilitator learn to become trusted by the people they’re working with?
In order to understand this process, I’ve been reflecting on times when I know I have gained someone’s trust. Just recently, a participant in a group I was facilitating came to me and said “I would trust you to land a plane for us.” We laughed. I was thoroughly embarrassed as well as touched by what she’d said, and I was also curious as to what made her say this, as I’m obviously no pilot! So as uncomfortable as it was for me, I asked her if she would mind explaining what she was feeling. I present it here for all of us to learn from.
This group member told me, “When you’re working with us, I don’t sense any manipulation, just respect. You help different perspectives be heard; you’re not trying to bring the group to your own conclusions or to follow a set agenda.” She told me she’d worked with facilitators who did have an agenda and that she’d felt pushed in the direction the facilitator wanted things to go. That sense of pushing made her and the rest of the group push back defensively against both the facilitator and each other, ruining their ability to actually get their work done.
“You really went with the flow,” she said, “but even though we couldn’t feel it, I know you were working with a structure, because we landed. There is something in the way you do this work that enables groups to land.”
It seems what helped this group member to trust me was seeing me give group members space to share all their many stories and perspectives, and to allow the group to take time to naturally coalesce their goals and ideas. Even though we hadn’t worked together for very long, it seems I cultivated trust by communicating openness, good intentions, respect, and trust in them as individuals and as a group. I’m curious to further explore the mechanisms and processes involved, but certainly her response satisfied my initial curiosity about her kind comment.
I want to invite readers in all professions—facilitators, coaches, supervisors and leaders—to think about how to create trust, how to have people say, “I trust you to help us get to our goal, and I also trust that you can hear my dissent when I don’t agree. I trust that you can help all of us reach an even better landing point.”
I’m hoping to hear from you about your most reliable methods of creating trust. Is it something you can put into words or do you work purely on instinct? How do you achieve your extraordinary results?