Trust is Earned Slowly

Earlier this summer while vacationing at a cottage on Lake Charlevoix in Michigan, my family taught our ten year old golden retriever, named Bella, how to jump off the end of the dock into the lake. She is a water-loving dog and would stand over the edge of the dock looking as if she wanted to jump, but was apprehensive. We demonstrated how to jump many, many times over a couple of days. We reassured and encouraged her and eventually, well, she did it!

It took time and a lot of patience from us to prove ‘you can teach an old dog new tricks’. Bella needed to get there on her own; I believe she had to trust we would not put her in harms way.

The neighboring cottage also had a family vacationing with a medium sized Labrador named Hank. After they saw Bella jump off the dock they wanted Hank to do it too. The father and kids encouraged and demonstrated for about 15 minutes but that dog was not interested. Finally the dad picked up the dog and gently threw him in the water. (I know for some of you that might be unsettling but rest assured the dog was physically fine.) Hank swam to shore and for the rest of the vacation never stepped foot on that dock again.

Trust is earned slowly and destroyed quickly – with canines and with humans.

It is vital for team leaders/coaches to build and maintain strong trusting relationships with team members if they expect any directions or feedback given to be received as genuine and effective. Authors Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider write about this in their 2002 book Trust in Schools.

Trust permits people to disambiguate feedback and to see criticism as information that can help them improve rather than as possible evidence of bias. When trust is uncertain, however, a critical evaluator’s intent can come under suspicion. (Bryk & Schneider, 2002)

What happens to the work relationship when ‘the leader or coach’s intent comes under suspicion’? Likely doubts are cast, disregard for ‘doing the right thing’ takes over and if not rectified quickly, irreversible damage that creates a team of “Hanks”.

The internet is filled with many leadership ideas that offer thoughts and plans on how to build trust in the workplace. Through my research and personal experience I’ve concluded the most important place to start is to look in the mirror. Taking an inventory of my own demonstrated behaviors followed by a willingness to acknowledge shortcomings and make adjustments for improvement helps establish a foundation of trust with those around me.

The following four attributes are at the top of my self-evaluation list because I know they improve relationships:

  • Care – This covers the spectrum of exchanging daily pleasantries to patience while individuals learn new procedures, to compassion and support when employees are faced with difficult personal issues. Consider your attitude and tone when helping an employee change behavior. Demonstrating you care about them being their best and supporting them will be reciprocated in their motivation and effort to make that change.
  • Competency – When making requests or introducing a new task for employees to complete, start by providing an overview and then describe the specific actions to be taken. Your team members are smart but they are not mind readers – explain why something needs to be done a certain way so they can appreciate the process and likely the bigger purpose.
  • Consistency – Trust means being able to predict what other people will do and what situations will occur. Being inconsistent with our behaviors (things we do or things we say) will cause conflict and confusion in others leading to doubt, which breaks down trust. Therefore ‘do what you say you will do’.
  • Communication – Encouraging employees to talk requires your ability to ask them good (and sometimes hard) questions. Proactively think through a conversation before it occurs to envision how and what questions to possibly ask. For example, instead of a manager reviewing instructions for a task multiple times with an employee stop after the first or second overview and say, “Let’s check for understanding. Describe to me how to complete this from the beginning.” Demonstrate active listening. Be respectful by not interrupting, but make notes of any details you would like to comment on or clarify when they finish. Remember, a person doesn’t know what they don’t know, right? So asking, “What questions do you have?” won’t be as valuable as a question like, “What are you least comfortable with regarding this new task?”

Trust is earned slowly because it requires time to show we genuinely care. Competent individuals/leaders instill confidence in others by demonstrating over time consistency through our behaviors and clear communication.

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