Thursday 20 July 2023


One of the topics that often comes up in coaching is trust. Which means that I have heard many people reflecting on it, and have, therefore, developed a few thoughts myself - and indeed read around a bit.

The first thing to say is that it is very easy to see this in a binary fashion: either I trust someone or I don't. But a few moments of reflection make it very clear that here, such a binary approach is unhelpful.  It is much more helpful to see it as a gradation: I may trust someone a little - what would it take to enable me to trust a little bit more?

The second is that there are different component parts of trust. Imagine you are going for heart surgery and have the choice of two surgeons. One is a known liar, cheat at games and generally untrustworthy kind of chap - but very skilled with the scalpel.  The other is a genuinely virtuous person, but with rather shaky hands. Which would you trust to operate on you?

So we need to start to unpack that word trust a bit, and consider (say) intentions, competence and communication. For me to trust someone to the highest level, I must be able to trust all three of those. And if I feel mistrustful of someone, it is helpful to identify which of these (or some other aspect) is causing me concern; and then at least I can recognise the aspects I do trust, which is a good foundation to build on.

And then, there's the need to look in the mirror: to what extent am I trustworthy?  Do I trust myself, for example? Stephen Covey writes about the importance of this in his famous Seven Habits. He talks of the Personal Integrity Account: the extent to which we believe ourself when we make commitments to ourself, and the importance of investing in that account.

If I do trust myself, it is worth recognising that others may not do so quite as readily.  There are good reasons for that. One is the realisation that we judge ourself and others in different ways. When I am considering my behaviour, what is most salient to me is my intentions.  I know my intentions are good, so that inclines me to take a positive view of myself (on a good day, at any rate...) However, others can't see my intentions, and I can't see theirs. So we deduce each others' intentions from behaviours and outcomes.

That is partly why transparency and openness are so foundational to trust: they enable others to get a better sense of our intentions - and may enable us to hear why others read us differently from our self-image. Daniel Coyle, in The Culture Code, suggests that the three essentials for leaders in developing trust in teams are building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.

We also need to distinguish trust from agreement.  Peter Block (as ever) is very helpful here, in The Empowered Manager; indeed, he suggests that we can create a four box grid, with trust (from low to high) on one axis, and agreement (from low to high) on another, and plot key relationships on it, so as to develop authentic strategies for addressing each of the possible combinations. 

And as Patrick Lencioni points out (in his
 Five Dysfunctions) trust is foundational for teams. A lack of trust leads to a fear of necessary conflict, which leads to low commitment, which leads to the avoidance of accountability, which leads to an inattention to results. So in his model, leaders in particular need to attend to this. They do this by modelling vulnerability, welcoming and managing the conflict of ideas, asking for commitment, holding people accountable and encouraging mutual accountability, and reviewing progress towards results with courage and honesty, with the team.

Vulnerability is, of course, risky. The root of the word is the Latin vulnus, a wound. So if we are trying to build trust where it has been damaged, we expose ourselves to being wounded. Why would we do that? On the positive side, because it demonstrates a willingness to trust the other not to abuse the vulnerability, which is in itself an investment in trust and an invitation to reciprocate. And on the negative side, because we all know what it is like when people lock into a highly defensive mode: progress becomes nearly impossible.  But it is a risk, so don't go too far too fast - not only is that risky for you, but it is scary for others, too!

And of course, that vulnerability is why it is so devastating when someone feels that trust has been betrayed: but perhaps that's a topic for a future post.


With thanks to Ronda Dorsey for sharing this photo on Unsplash

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