Trust is like a tree

Trust is essential

Trust is like a tree. Once axed, it takes a long time to have a new tree. That is why any leader should cherish trust within a team. Without trust coöperation becomes difficult, if not impossible. But sometimes you have to work in a situation where there is no trust because there is no relationship. So how do you do that?

Closing down the House

I remember the time I was handling the closure of a warehouse. The warehouse was in the Liège area and was heavily unionized. The mission was contradictory. I had to announce the closure of the warehouse but should avoid strikes as it was high season. Moreover the budget for the closure was far too low. I had no relation whatsoever with the people in the warehouse – the day that I announced the closure was only my second visit – so there was no trust. I was the bad man who executed a decision taken a long way from the warehouse.

On top of that I had to work with the unions and had to deal with a corporate management that was very suspicious. I was under heavy surveillance and every move I made was scrutinised. I could not afford to make any mistake, that was clear. So I felt like squeezed between two sides that did not trust me. I can tell you, this was one of the most difficult periods in my professional career. I had to handle the closure, build trust with (furious) unions and manage the relationship with headquarters. But I have learned how to build trust in the process.

8 ways to build Trust

Here’s what you can do when you need to build trust.

  • Map the Landscape

    The first thing you need to do is map the landscape. What’s the mission? What’s the interest? Where are interests in conflict and where’s the common ground? Who are the allies? Who are the adversaries? Who is trustworthy and who isn’t?

    Making this analysis is important because it gives you insights in the dynamics of the process. You might think this is political, and yes you are right. Any political action starts with an analysis of the landscape. But the purpose of this analysis is to find fertile soil to grow trust upon.

  • Be yourself

    This is the eternal advice. At all cost you need to stay yourself. If you start playing a role, you will end up in a web of lies. You are you. This means that you should make personal comments, laugh at a joke someone tells you, be sincere. Don’t try to be the person you are not.

  • Be present and available

    Presence is important. If people see you regularly you become part of the scenery. They get used to you. Being together with the people you want to build a trusting relationship with is almost the physical basis for trust. Being present generates ample opportunities to talk, to help, to show you care. Being present generates opportunities for informal conversation, which is more effective than a formal meeting, as far as building trust is concerned.

  • Show interest

    Show that you are interested in what the others think, feel. Ask questions. Be empathic. Acknowledge understanding. Be open to what others think and feel. If people see that you genuinely care, they open up. Don’t manipulate. Don’t act as if you care. People will sense that.

  • Be transparent

    Some times it might be difficult to be transparent. Maybe you did not have a mandate to tell everything. But you need to negotiate that mandate. Nobody can expect you to tell lies. Lying by omission can be attractive, but if you apply the salami technique to show information slice by slice, you might end up with a backdraft. It’s usually better to present the sour apple in one piece at the start of the process. Remember that you always have a choice to be transparent or not.

  • Be consistent

    Consistency is a major source of trust. Do not change opinions all the time. Do what you say. Keep promises. And if you change plans, talk about it. Explain why. Consistency is not limited to the plan. It includes consistent behaviour and being reliable.

  •  Be vulnerable

    When it’s appropriate, be vulnerable. If you do not know something, acknowledge that. If the counterpart offers you new information, accept that. You cannot know everything. Don’t be unreasonable about information that does not fit your scheme. Show others that you are willing to accept other opinions and be open to them. If you have made a mistake, admit it. Change your plan if that is useful. Being right is not the purpose, doing the right thing is. Don’t worry about losing your face. It’s a source of personality building. Your pride is not that important.

  • Be fair

    Fairness is one of the most difficult things in a difficult situation. However this is the test of the pudding. Are you willing to be fair even when this means that you deviate from a predefined course? Are you willing to be fair even when this means you need to stand up against others who care less about fairness?

Take the Heat

The closure of the plant started under bad circumstances. Belgian and European law requires you to start a process of information before the decision is taken. So you have to first announce your intention to close operations, after which a period of social bargaining starts. This should allow the unions to come up with alternative options, ask questions, make suggestions. Very often this is a formal and therefore cruel requirement that has no relation with economic or social considerations.

I got yelled at and called names in French I had never heard before. So it was understandable that people were angry. If you understand the emotion, and you acknowledge this understanding, you are half way. It does not mean that you have to change the decision because of the emotions. It only means that you relate to them, that you’re human.

At the end of the process we reached a deal, with only half a day of strike. The process took longer than normal because of this request to avoid strikes but in terms of time and budget the closure went well. On the human side, I experienced a process that started in turmoil but ended in mutual appreciation. Local union representatives had sent away their regional representatives because they found that insulting me was not helping at all. We found an understanding and there was mutual appreciation.

Leaders who keep a distance from the heat will never experience this process. But they will never reach a level of trust. They will be seen as indifferent, impersonal, untrustworthy. I believe you can accelerate the process of creating trust, but it’s only by being human that you can do that. So take the heat.

David Ducheyne

David Ducheyne

David is a specialist in people strategies, leadership and organizational development. He has gathered international experience with Henkel, Alcatel, Case New Holland, Securex and the University of Ghent. As an author he has published on Sustainable Leadership, Customzed Work, Health Management and Learning. He's also an avid blogger and key note speaker.

Trust is like a tree – 8 ways to build Trust.
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7 thoughts on “Trust is like a tree – 8 ways to build Trust.

  • January 18, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    David, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder if you would expand more on your perspective of what it means to “be fair”? I consult in family business and wealth transfer situations where “fairness” is defined clearly from each person’s perspective and is rarely agreed upon.

      January 20, 2015 at 12:29 pm

      Fairness is about equity. And you are right, there’s a subjective dimension in it. How I experience ‘my treatment’ by others depends on my expectations, my mood, my prior experiences, my values, my sensitivity, …. The only kind of justice that everyone can agree on is procedural justice: the same treatment for people that belong to the same category. However, this is a kind of justice that does not take into account individual needs and differences. Doing that (taking differences into account) makes justice fair, but less predictable, manageable.

      In education we know that procedural justice is not fair. In te past dyslexic people were treated the same way as people without learning challenges, and that was procedurally correct and just, but inherently unfair.

      There is no absolute answer to your interesting question.

  • December 31, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Ever used the “Trust Equation” (Maister)?

    I’ve found it often helps people (Engineers !) to grasp the concept of “trust” in a pragmatical way and to understand why trust “arrives on foot and leaves on a horseback… ”

    The equation uses four variables to measure thrustworthiness :

    (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self Orientation

    It allows you to actually “calculate” a Trust Quotient and makes you think on how you look at people (and more important, how they might look at you). When thinking through, it will bring you even some actions or attention points to improve your own credibility, reliability and intimacy level and to lower your self orientation (although this last one is not a given for everybody 🙂 )

    • January 18, 2015 at 10:54 pm

      Koen, thanks for sharing the equation. It puts familiar concepts together into a practical, integrated model.

  • December 15, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Trust is gained when you prove to people that you are trustworthy… Walk the talk and be committed in every single situation.
    I liked your article and will surely try to apply it in my career and personality development

  • December 11, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Can I suggest that you replace your “8 ways” with 1, “tell the truth” I have been on the receiving end of aggressive verbal behaviour when the Consultancy I worked for was brought in to handle the closing of a Business School at a well know University in the north of England. As the lead “outplacement consultant” on the project I was asked to meet with the academics whose jobs were under threat and I did this as a group exercise in what I saw was an informal opportunity to talk to them and build some trust and rapport. Well I was greeted with such anger and hostility that I was taken aback initially but after a while managed to tease out their issues. Amongst their complaints were:-

    1. No one is communicating effectively with us
    2. We don’t know what the proposals on the table are
    3. We haven’t been consulted about possibilities of re-deloyment
    4. No one has explained the rationale for the closing of the school
    5. I have worked here for over 20 years, where is the loyalty?
    6. No one is telling us the truth

    It became apparent very quickly that I had been given a “very limited” briefing from the university management and that I was being sent into the lions den to try and diffuse what was potentially a highly explosive situation.

    I spent a vey challenging 11/2 hours with the group but managed to establish an “understanding” with them about what i could do in my role.

    A lot of the problems could have been averted if the university management had been up front and “told the truth” from the outset. Yes, there would have still been complex and difficult negotiations but in an atmosphere of “mutual trust” rather than “mutual suspicion.”

      December 11, 2014 at 6:25 pm

      If the truth is told, how brutal it may be, there are no further obstacles. Conflicts aggravate because people do not have the courage (or the “mandate”) to speak up. Thanks for your contribution.


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