“What, you don’t trust me?” Becky asked her boss, Pat, when he told her he needed to get daily progress reports from her.
“Sure . . . I trust you,” Pat replied after an awkward pause. “It’s . . . my boss. She’s a stickler for all this administrative stuff.” Becky glowered and walked back to her desk.
I trust you about as far as I can throw you, Pat thought.
When people don’t trust each other they spend too much time second guessing motives and engaging in unproductive activities. In a low-trust work environment, “CYA” measures become more important than the task at hand as managers require more paperwork and hold more meetings to make sure everyone is doing what they said they would do.
A healthy, efficient organization runs on trust: up, down and across the organizational structure, people operate with integrity and honesty. But even in those organizations, trust isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. I think of trust as having three levels: Blind Trust (I believe whatever you say), Conditional Trust (I trust you in these ways under these conditions) and Earned Trust (I have a history with you and know that you are trustworthy).
When deciding whether and how much you can trust someone, it’s useful to examine the basis of that trust. In The Thin Book of Trust, Charles Feltman outlines four foundations for trust: Sincerity, Competence, Reliability, and Caring. Looking at trust through these four lenses enables you to better understand your relationship with others, manage your expectations and structure your request for their help.
Sincerity is saying what you mean and meaning what you say. When a colleague promises to fulfill a request I’ve made, can I believe she is sincere? Some people are casual in their promises. When they agree to do something, what they really mean is “if I have the time, nothing better comes along, and I feel like doing it.” In an organization where “no” is not permitted, “yes” becomes meaningless. Of course, people who cannot decline may still do their best to complete the task. It is important to recognize whether the person sincerely wants to accept the request or simply has no other choice.
Competence involves determining whether the person has the skill to take on the request. A team member may be willing to do the research I need, but is he capable? In order to trust him with this task I may have to find out how he plans to conduct the research and possibly give him more guidance.
Reliability considers the history I have with the other person. Perhaps she has completed my request on most occasions, but not always. Choosing to trust this person means I have gotten data over time that indicate she will most likely deliver. But I might want to check in on her progress once or twice.
Caring is having the other person’s interest in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take action. Of the four assessments of trustworthiness, caring is the most important for building lasting trust. If people believe you are only concerned with your self-interest, they may trust your sincerity, reliability and competence, but they will tend to limit their trust of you to specific situations. When people believe you care about their interests, they will extend more trust to you.
When you have doubts about trusting someone with a task, you can explain your concerns by specifying which of the four areas present a problem. Explaining your reasons helps to build understanding and allows the person to take measures designed specifically to overcome your distrust. At the same time you can put guardrails in place to make sure the goal is achieved.
Walter told me that he didn’t trust his team to complete assignments correctly. When I asked him to consider his lack of trust through these four lenses, he gained insight into their behavior and his concerns. He said he couldn’t trust Amy’s sincerity because she is a pleaser and never says no, even when she can’t possibly complete a task on time. His senior manager, Ned, is new to the role and not yet competent to estimate how long projects took, so his timelines were suspect. He had only been working with his business partner, Nick, for a few months so he didn’t know yet if he was reliable. Nick had met expectations so far, but Walter wasn’t sure if that was replicable over time. Least trustworthy of all is his peer, Karen. She has frequently put her self-interest over team goals.
Understanding the source of his distrust meant Walter could give each person specific feedback designed to restore trust and improve the health of the organization. When I asked Walter how his team would assess his own trustworthiness along these four aspects, it was an a-ha moment. Trust, he realized, is very much a two-way street.