Trust - What Is It?

Note: Undoubtedly, trust is one of the essential qualities of human interaction. But, what is it, exactly? Enjoy. Previous installments of my weekly blog from 2013 can be found on my website at

Definition of Trust
Merriam-Webster says: "assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something." Well, that's a mouthful, but, from that, I am still not sure I can tell what trust is. I do know that it is very rare in 2016 to find trust, especially in the workplace. Promises are broken, agreements end in tatters and words being spoken with confidence end up being meaningless. I do know that there are two types of workplace trust; predictive and vulnerability-based trust.

Predictive Trust
If I was CEO of a company with 250 employees, I can say, with some assurance, that I trust that 95% of them will show up for work on any given day, and the remainder could be sick, out for jury duty and a personal day. Or, in another instance, when you know a colleague long enough to know what to expect from him or her. These are examples of predictive trust. While this kind of trust is useful; it’s not fundamental to creating great team dynamics.

Vulnerability-Based Trust
The age of individual success is waning, being replaced by collective impact; i.e., a team approach to business. It’s not rocket science to state that trust is necessary for team building. Nor is it a stretch to say that the more trust there is among team members; the better the team thrives. Anyone can deduct that a thriving team equals thriving productivity. The first step is to be vulnerable with your team; especially so as the leader.  This will allow others to be vulnerable with you and build workplace trust. As Patrick Lencioni says, “Vulnerability-based trust is knowing that when a team member does push you, they’re doing it because they care about what's best for the team.”

The moment you’re able to tell a colleague “I’m bad at this,” “I was wrong” or “You’ve done a terrific job”; the moment you’re willing to be this vulnerable without fearing your colleague abusing the situation, that’s when you’ve got the trust you need. That’s the kind of trust that builds dynamics, spurs on creativity and produces satisfying results.

You know, contrary to what’s often cited in job descriptions, teamwork is neither a virtue nor a skill. Teamwork is a choice each team member makes. If trust is lacking in a team, the members will choose —either consciously or unconsciously— not to work (well) together.

Case History
“You know what your problem is? You believe that everybody thinks and acts as thoughtful as you do.” The look my new coaching client gave me as he said this, put me back on my heels. It was a sort of "you're an idiot" look. Coming from anybody else I might’ve considered this comment a layered compliment. However, coming from him it felt like an explicit warning. (As the COO, he was not happy that his CEO had assigned him an executive coach, and he was trying to set the boundaries for future meetings between us.)

Watching some of our interactions, the CEO even took me aside and asked me if I didn’t like the COO! The Executive Team was out having office drinks that evening, and the mood was somewhat casual. I glanced over at the COO, congenial with others, and turned to the CEO, “I don’t know how to read him yet.”

The Office Games We Play
Before this engagement, I had provided similar planning and coaching services to another company. The project ended and the CEO, pleased with the results, recommended me to another CEO embarking on a similar project.

Coming in with high praises can raise questions, though. And, while the COO I was assigned to coach acted somewhat friendly, he held his distance. So at the first weekly staff meeting with the Executive Team, I stressed how he had helped me understand the complexity of the company very quickly and credited him for some superb ideas that I presented to improve communications flow within the enterprise.

I did this for two reasons; one, it was the truth. My thoughts came from ‘fresh eyes;" but there’s no way I could ever have done it in the time allocated without the COO's help. Two, it was a collaborative process, and I needed to show him he could trust me. His attitude towards me changed then and there. I had proven to him that I was trustworthy, and yes, it turned out we worked well together.

The reason I was brought in to coach the COO was that he had been particularly disruptive in the office. He was also the office loudmouth, and it was damaging morale, in particular on the Executive Team.  His behaviour was a real problem; as a key player in the everyday operations of the company, it was not only breaking down trust on the team; it was becoming toxic for the entire company. He also had a bad habit of taking credit for work that his subordinates were doing, and he was constantly elbowing his way into the spotlight. We all in (office) life make judgement calls of who is trustworthy versus who is untrustworthy and he was not trustworthy in the eyes of his peers or direct reports.

I needed to have him see how others perceived him, and so I created a 360-degree review process within the group of his subordinates. Later, as he read through what his direct reports thought about him, at first, he got angry and discredited the process. Next, he just seemed to deflate and asked me if I thought these perceptions were accurate. I responded by asking him if there was any truth in what they were saying and he slowly nodded yes. He was shocked and humbled, to say the least. I went on to ask, "What are you willing to do about it?" He asked for my help in creating a plan to make amends, which included individual meetings with each of his peers, and a public apology at the next Executive Team Meeting. This gesture on his part went a long way toward beginning to establish the trust that was necessary to build a high performing team.

You probably know the old saying about: "Those that play together; stay together." I think in this situation it should read: "Those that trust together; excel together."

Next Week: More about trust.