Can I trust you?

I have experienced as much dysfunctional corporate behaviour as I have seen inspiring behaviour. Where it goes wrong, there is usually a corresponding break down in trust.

Herewith some notes on Trust, and how it matters at work.

The great German philosopher, Nietzsche said, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you”.

Trust underlies all our relationships, and is especially relevant in Agile because we need to trust a team to meet their commitments.

Old school management battles with this team commitment idea. They want a single point of responsibility. They want someone to fire when it all goes pear-shaped! Everything in the top down management approach, even the language, is about NOT trusting people. Management puts in controls and processes, rather than trusting in individuals.

Most corporates practice this anti-pattern of Agile. To implement Agile in that kind of environment, you’ve got to work on building trust. A good place to start is by understanding HOW people trust, because different people have different approaches to trust.

Some people start out with a high level of Trust, but you can lose their trust through your actions. Others are highly suspicious initially, but you can work to gain their Trust over time.

However your Trust is formed, it is always a very fragile thing that is easier to lose than to gain. You can take years to build Trust, but you can shatter it in an instant.

Dr Ralph Colby of the Integro Leadership Institute defines Trust in terms of 4 dominant styles. We all have one or more of these styles, usually with a bias for one of them.

~ The Styles ~

~ 1 ~

The simplest basis for Trust is Reliability. This is about keeping your commitments. If you promise to finish the report by the end of the afternoon, you need to do so. For a person who values Reliability highly, you break their Trust when you fail to deliver as promised.

You might think that delivering the report tomorrow morning is good enough, and you can’t see why they make a big deal of it. After all, you got it done more or less as promised, right? For some people, that is OK, but for the person who bases their Trust on reliability, you weren’t reliable, and you have diminished their Trust in you.

Most of us want to believe that you will do as you say. Repeatedly being casual about your commitments will never make you a Trustworthy person. We all need to understand that some people have a shorter fuse around reliability than others.

~ 2 ~

The next style of Trust is based on Congruence. Congruence means that your words and actions must be aligned. If you praise a colleague, then your body language must show that you really mean it. People are very attuned to subtle messages, so you can’t fake it. Your words and your behavior must be congruent – they must express the same message.

There is another element to Congruence, and that is Congruence with another person. Some people Trust more easily when the way you present yourself is congruent with the way they behave. So you have an internal Congruence where your words and actions must match, but there is also an external congruence with others.

External congruence is obviously very challenging in a multi-cultural environment, as it biases people to trust more easily within their own cultural circle.

~ 3 ~

Number 3 is Openness. A very secretive environment will have low levels of trust. If your company operates on a need-to-know basis, then there will be no Trust. A good example is salaries. Many companies insist that salaries are kept confidential. This is because salaries aren’t fair – some people have negotiated better deals than others, and most of us know that. If you allow salaries to be public information, then salaries become more fair, and you will have a very high Trust company. We can all see that there is nothing to hide, and our Trust of the company goes up. Most companies haven’t the balls to implement this!

Openness is also about feedback. Do you give open and honest feedback? Do you take open and honest feedback? Openness engages people, and makes them share more in common goals.

~ 4 ~

The final element of Trust is Acceptance. This is about people knowing that they are accepted for who they are. It is closely aligned with honesty and respect. People who are on guard, wondering when the next judgment or criticism is going to fall, will not be highly trusting. Don’t confuse feedback, part of openness, with criticism, which breaks trust.


Trust underpins all the interactions and relationships we have at work. Any company that has Office politics, has issues with Trust. Office Politics being the all too familiar environment where backstabbing, hidden agendas and self-preservation are the overriding behaviours. That is not an environment for nurturing Trust.

Building Trust takes understanding, honesty, integrity and time. However the starting point is simple. The Director of America’s WWII nuclear programme, Henry Stimson said it best “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him”.

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