Leading the Middle – Give Trust, Earn Trust

Imagine that you must travel for a work assignment. The Uber driver arrives at your house, and you get in the car with your luggage. You arrive at the airport, drop your bags with a skycap, greet the flight attendant, and say hello to the pilot. You settle in for a flight, having granted trust to people you likely have never met—the driver, skycap, pilot. Do you know who did the maintenance checks on the plane? My friend and colleague John O’Grady, COL, US Army (Ret), creates an insightful paradox, “We trust these people with our lives and often those of our families, without a second thought. Yet, in our most important and intimate relationships, we withhold trust. With our work colleagues, those whom we inherently rely on for success, we say, ‘You must earn my trust.'”


Perhaps the socialization of trust has been wrong. What if we granted the same level of trust to the people closest to us as we do to the drivers and pilots in our lives? Imagine having high trust relationships that start with “you have my trust, and it can only be eroded or lost” rather than a “trust must be earned” mentality. The buy-in and responsibility felt by the newly trusted employee go through the roof! So, too, does their commitment to maintaining that trust. Here are a few steps towards cultivating a culture of trust:

· Set clear expectations
· Instead of only talking about trust at the beginning of a relationship, and then again only if it is broken or lost, make trust part of your team’s everyday conversations
· Use the space between those conversations to talk about how employees are demonstrating behavior that aligns with your expectations
· When you think there may be a trust issue arising, approach it from a position of authentic curiosity instead of being accusatory; find the underlying reasons for the issue and collaboratively address them
· Maintain trust behaviors and a trusted environment before it becomes broken; be proactive

Cultivating a culture of trust is like any leader’s action: it is a choice. To create work environments where trust flourishes, we need to understand how trust works; the ways it is given, built, maintained; and how it becomes lost or broken. We can then teach ourselves how to act and react in ways that help cultivate trust, even in the most challenging situations. 

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