Have you ever worked for someone you didn’t trust?
Have you ever worked for someone who didn’t trust you?
Have you ever tried to earn someone’s trust, but failed?
It happens every time you interview for a job, but leave without an offer. It happens when you try to make a sale, but can’t close it. It happens when you pitch a new project, but no one sponsors it.
You’re trying to get someone to trust you. You know you’ll do a great job. You know your product will amaze them. You know your idea will be a big win. But you need buy-in. And buy-in only comes with trust.
Why is trust in business so rare?
Trust comes with proximity. It comes with vulnerability. It comes with interdependence.
It’s surprisingly difficult to build a business environment that promotes proximity, vulnerability, and interdependence.
Think about the job interview for a minute. In the traditional case, you’re talking with someone you’ve never met before. They’re a stranger. You’re a stranger. And yet you’re trying to assess the potential for one of the most consequential commitments either of you will make.
That’s why you hear the advice about leveraging your network. Find someone who can vouch for you. Use the trust of your network as a proxy. It’s associative. The hiring manager trusts someone in your network. Someone in your network trusts you. Ipso facto, the hiring manager trusts you.
Work environments promote the opposite of vulnerability. Typically we’re all competing for promotions, for compensation, or for visibility. I have to mask my weaknesses. I have to juxtapose my strengths against the perceived weaknesses of others. It’s a battlefield out there.
Technically, all work environments should foster interdependence. That’s the nature of a company. Success ultimately depends on the contributions of everyone in the company. But silos work against a feeling of interdependence. We pursue needless redundancy, because we don’t trust the contributions of others. Interdependence weakens, and eventually dies.
We use pathetic tactics to overcome a chronic lack of trust
What do we do, when we avoid the hard work of building trust?
We rely on credentials. Does someone have a fancy degree? Did they work at a name brand company? Did they collect recognizable certifications? It’s easier to look for triggers on a resume than to really get to know someone.
We build up our armor. If I don’t trust my coworkers, I don’t rely on them too much. I duplicate their work, if it’s critical to my deliverables. I make sure my credibility is never attached to their contributions. I ask multiple people the same question, so I can triangulate on an advantageous answer.
What do senior executives do, to overcome a trust gap? They communicate. Town hall meetings. Emails. Videos. Podcasts.
But it all sounds too formal. You don’t hear, read, or see anything provocative. It’s all boiler plate stuff. Executives have too much to lose. They’re risk averse, like everyone else. Except they know how delicate their position is, given all the visibility they have.
Boil this down. Think about all of these tactics, the ones we use as lousy stand-ins for trust. What do they have in common? They make the business function worse. They waste people’s time. They make us less generous. They erode morale. They promote exactly the opposite outcomes we’d get if we put in the hard work of building trust.
How can you build trust at work?
First, start small. You’re not going to earn trust with every senior executive in your company. You’re not going to connect with every influencer or top performer.
If you don’t have the trust you’d like with your own boss, start there. Or maybe someone else on your team. Or a mentor. Or an old boss, someone you still keep in touch with. Find someone who’s already close to you. Someone with whom you already have proximity.
Second, go first. This is something that has come naturally to me. I don’t open up to everyone. But if it looks like there’s a chance I can build a deep relationship with someone, I go first. I make the first vulnerable comment. I offer the first confession. I ask the first reflective question.
Going first is tough. It’s high risk. It can backfire if you share with someone who’s vindictive. But trust your judgment. You’ll know if someone is worth getting to know better. Don’t think you have to be a superhero. We’re all human. Sharing your fears or frustrations can be a great way to open up a previously stunted relationship.
Third, practice empathy. Every day. All the time. Everyone dwells on themselves. Get in their head. Play a game where you think about what you’d do, if the only goal was to make this person’s life easier in some small way today. It doesn’t have to be profound. What’s one thing you can do that helps them out? Something that mitigates a fear. Something that overcomes a frustration. Something that helps them form a connection.
You can probably see why trust in business is hard. It takes time. It’s not guaranteed to work. It’s risky.
Have you ever heard someone reflect on their career? Have you heard them talk about what mattered most to them? It’s the people. It’s not the paycheck. Or the company. Or the roles or responsibilities they had. It’s the people they worked with. The people that supported them, encouraged them, pushed them.
In the heat of battle, though, it’s easier to just rely on credentials. Or put up your armor. Cut people out. Communicate excessively, but only in the most boring, most pedantic, least approachable way possible.
That’s not good enough. Not nearly good enough. You’re better than that. Take the time and make the sacrifices to build trust. It’s a lot of cost up front, but the rewards are immense and cascade far into the future.