Oswald Letter

A Matter of Trust

The other day, I was faced with a situation where things were not progressing as I had hoped. My frustration led me to have a conversation with a colleague. I shared my dilemma with him and asked what he thought the key was to resuming progress. His response was, “You need to build trust. Obviously the person you’re dealing with doesn’t trust you enough to feel comfortable committing to what you’re asking.”

That conversation got me thinking about trust. It’s the critical element to every successful relationship. This is demonstrated clearly in the military. Soldiers put their lives on the line and need to trust the other members of their platoon implicitly. If they don’t have a high level of trust among the members of the platoon, the mission will be jeopardized and, possibly, lives will be lost.

But trust isn’t just important in life-or-death situations. For a family to operate most effectively, the family members must trust one another. In team sports, squad members must trust that their teammates will each do their jobs for the unit to be successful. The same is true at work. People must trust that their boss and coworkers are capable, competent professionals who will do their part for the team to function successfully.

I once worked for an incredibly talented individual. He was smart, very creative, and full of energy. He was a tremendous communicator who could really get people excited about their work. Yet he had one big flaw — people didn’t trust him, and it made it really hard for him to be effective as a leader and for the team to be successful.

I’ve often thought about why it was that people didn’t trust him because he was a generally good person who wanted the business to succeed. I’ve come to the conclusion that he was far too inconsistent for people to truly trust him. The people who worked for him and with him didn’t know how he’d react to any given situation because there were no consistencies in his actions. He might react to a certain situation one way today and turn around and react in a completely different way tomorrow. He was unpredictable and that represented risk to those around him. That lack of consistency caused people not to trust him.

It seems to me that to be a truly successful leader you need to develop trust with those you work with.  Here’s what I think it takes to build trust at work:

T is for tell ’em. Tell the people you work with what you’re going to do and then do it. Tell them what you expect of them. Tell them when they do well and when they don’t. Tell them what to expect from you and then deliver on it. There’s no doubt that your words need to be backed up with actions, but it starts with words. Communicating consistently with your people helps to develop trust.

R is for respect. You need to treat people with respect if you expect them to trust you. This is something even your average household pet has figured out. A dog that gets beaten every time it misbehaves may fear its owner but it doesn’t respect him. For a long time, there has been a debate about whether, as a leader, it’s better to be loved or feared. I’d argue that it’s best to be respected. And to get respect you need to give it as well.

U is for understand. You need to understand each person on your team as an individual if you expect them to trust you. As a leader, you can’t treat every person the same and expect them all to perform well. You need to understand what drives them, what they fear, and what they desire. You need to understand who they are at their core. When people realize that you really know them and what is important to them, they will begin to trust you.

S is for steady. You need to be consistent. You need to be reliable. You need to be steady if you want to gain the trust of the people on your team. They need to know where you will stand and how you will react in certain situations. Your consistency will give them comfort. They may know that you’re going to be displeased and they’re going to be disciplined, but knowing helps them manage it. It’s the fear of the unknown that paralyzes people, keeping them from acting.

T is for truthful. If you want to gain people’s trust, you must be truthful. Lie to them, mislead them, even tell them a half-truth, and you will lose their trust. It’s true what they say — it takes time to build trust but only a second to lose it. If you want to gain trust, be honest.

Building trust with those around you is critical for any leader. Make building trust with your people a key goal in 2011. Look for ways in which you can increase the level of trust with your team and it will lead to new degrees of success.