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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

There’s a Better Way to Think About Trust in Teams

In 2013, I was in the Herat Province of Western Afghanistan, sitting in an armored vehicle and looking down at my teams’ locations on my navigation screen. I was at the tip of a 70-vehicle convoy snaking out 4 kilometers behind me. I remember vividly this surreal realization that I was in command of hundreds of people, people from four different nations, all of whom trusted me and believed that I would get them safely back from the outposts we were resupplying.

What was it about me that made these women and men put their faith in me, their lives in my hands? What did I do to earn their trust?

The reality is that I didn’t earn their trust, I gave them mine. This is the lesson that underpins everything I’m going to talk about. Trust is not earned. Trust is built. There’s a fundamental difference here that we don’t often notice, but one that ripples through all our relationships. And it’s the difference between nurturing trust and poisoning it.

Fast forward to today. As an executive coach, this idea of trust is one of the things that I help leaders think through often.

Relationships. Conflict management. Psychological safety. Equity and inclusion. High-performing teams. All of these topics tie back into the common thread of connection and relationships at the most human level. And the foundation of all of it is trust.

Starting with some definitions

So what does it mean to earn trust versus build trust? They might sound synonymous, but the ideas are fundamentally different. To earn something is to achieve, to strive and succeed. It’s task-oriented and practically defined. Even the origin of the word “earn” in Old English is derived from the base word for “laborer.”

What do you notice about the phrase “earning trust” when you look at it from the perspective of labor?

To build something, on the other hand, is to create. It’s to nurture and foster. It’s team-oriented and defined much more abstractly. And the origin of the world “build” in Old English comes from the world “bold,” meaning dwelling or home.

What do you notice about the phrase “building trust” when you look at it from the perspective of home?

The reason this matters is that so often we see trust as a goal or a metric, not as a relationship. In some ways, I put the idea of “earning” trust in the same bucket as “earning” love. There are certainly things we can do to make ourselves more trustworthy , just like there are things we can do to make us easier to love. But trust itself is not earned. The more teams and leaders I talk to, the more I’m convinced: we’re not thinking of trust in the right way.

We need to focus on building trust

I had a coaching client, a CEO of a growing software startup, who had gotten the feedback from several people on his team who said they felt he didn’t trust them. In turn, they didn’t trust him either. He had done all the research on high-performing teams and knew from the Google study that psychological safety was the one of the best predictors of team success. He said, “Jason, I have to get this right. I want my team to be the best team they can be.”

He tried all the tips and tricks. Trust equation, ATTUNE acronym, BRAVING framework. He was practicing active listening, trying to be more dependable and reliable, all of it. And he still wasn’t earning the trust of the team. So we went back to the beginning, back to him wanting his team to be the best team they could be, and I asked him what about that was important to him.

After we got under the surface of quarterly targets and business expectations, it became clear that his biggest fear was getting it wrong and failing.

He couldn’t build trust because his own ego wouldn’t allow him to let go of the control.

He was doing all the right things on paper, but they were just that; paper-thin, and the people around him saw right through it. You can’t fake an environment of trust. It’s not a cardboard movie set.

1/ Let go of your ego

I’m going to offer you four ways to really invest in building trust in your teams and your relationships, based on my own experience and the research of smarter people, but this is number one: let go of your ego.

Trust is not something we earn for ourselves, like we earn a paycheck or a sales award, but something that’s built between people. If you set out to earn somebody’s trust, the two of you can only ever get as close as your ego makes room for.

Trust is a group dynamic. It’s not up to you to force trust on the team or expect that a workshop or offsite is going to build it for you. It’s built together, built from little pieces that each individual contributes. If you view team trust as anything other than that, even as a leader, you’re not setting the right foundation for connections and relationships.

Instead of asking, “What can I do to earn trust?” ask, “What can we do to build trust?” And I mean literally ask. Ask the people around you and genuinely listen. Not everyone wants or needs the same things to feel safe, to build connection. If you come at trust from a selfish place, you’re bound to get lonely results.

2/ Lead with your heart

Although we’ve established that it’s not all about you, that doesn’t mean don’t bring yourself into the relationship. The essential part of letting go of your ego isn’t that you don’t matter, it’s that everyone else matters just as much. What an empowering idea.

Once you view everyone on a level playing field, as peers, it’s almost an open invitation to connect and build relationships. Take the opportunity to connect with other people at a personal, human level, and to share with them at the same. Be vulnerable.

The simplest definition of trust is taking the risk to be hurt. Take the risk to be hurt. This is your opportunity to pitch in on building trust. Bring yourself, your hopes, your fears, everything to the team. Be brave, open up, and trust yourself as a starting point.

My CEO client and I worked on reframing his need for success into something that can be shared with the team, celebrated together. When he was focused on earning trust and doing all the right things, he was stuck in his own head. The most powerful thing he ever did in genuinely building trust with his team was to name that and own it.

He shared with them how he was worried about letting go, about how he wanted them to succeed but felt stuck trying to get the team together. It became an opportunity for his team to see who he truly was, and it was an invitation for them to be vulnerable, too. It was a genuine moment where trust was built because it wasn’t the thing he was trying to earn. He was just leading with his heart.

3/ The little things matter most

The research here is surprisingly clear: deep trust is built out from a collection of small moments more than big gestures or events. Brené Brown calls this the “marble jar” of trust, where each action can add to or take away from the jar. My own local John Gottman calls these small opportunities “sliding-door moments.”

Since I imagine the idea of building trust like building a house, I think of the little things as all the people and materials that go into making something big and new. Recognize that this process takes time, there aren’t shortcuts or loopholes.

Every small story that someone shares is a nail in the framing of the house. Each time we meet others with compassion or take the time to listen, it’s a floorboard or a bit of drywall. Each time we ask for help or share when we’re wrong: big moments for constructing the house. But whenever someone is neglected, whenever someone is silenced or shamed, this tears down our house.

4/ First do no harm

Now, we talked a lot about letting go of our egos and realizing that building trust isn’t just up to us. But poisoning trust in many ways can be. Why is that? Sure, building trust isn’t easy, but we as humans are also hardwired to be social and trust others. But we’re also hardwired to be catastrophizers, to look for the negative.

When researchers look at teams and romantic partnerships, they see that negative interactions carry about five times more weight than more positive interactions. In teams that were high-performing, people had to make five times as many positive comments just to balance out the negative comments.

Studies have also highlighted that our brains light up with more activity and respond more strongly to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. We focus on the negative, and trust is easier to damage than it is to build. Just like building a house, every mistake has a bigger impact than every success.

It also means that, while one person alone can’t build trust, one person can ruin it. A single person can’t build a house, but they can do a lot of damage. One of my clients left her high-profile job at one of the biggest tech companies on the planet because just one person on her team didn’t trust her and created a toxic, fear-based environment at work.

When you focus on earning trust, you focus on just a few actions that might be successful. But they’re superficial and temporary, and every five you do are going to be drowned out by the one you don’t. Building trust, however, is deep and systemic; it doesn’t rely on you, it relies on your intentions. There are still failures, but they’re acknowledged and worked through as a team. It’s a cultural shift, not an operational shift.

In closing

So where does that leave us? Four things.

  1. Don’t focus on what you can do as an individual, let go of your ego and listen

  2. Don’t expect others to do the heavy lifting, lead with your heart and take your share of building the house of trust

  3. Don’t think that it’s going to be built with grand gestures and big efforts, recognize that the little things matter most

  4. Don’t forget that those things you cannot build on your own can still be destroyed on your own—first do no harm

Winning someone over to your side is not trust. Getting people to communicate and perform better is not trust. The objective really matters here.

If you just want your teams to perform better, there are a lot of things that you can do to make that happen. I can share some good spreadsheets and frameworks with you. But if you want your teams to be better, more open, more honest, more engaged and happy, look to trust. And, yes, research says performance will increase as a result.

Stop thinking about trust as something to be earned, on your own and through your own efforts, and see it as something to be built. It will be bigger and more beautiful than you could have imagined.

Originally published in The Startup


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