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Trust is a Whole Body Exercise

A drawing of a human as a "trusting machine"

"Trust is earned, not given."

Ubiquitous, concise and, if your goal is to build productive working relationships, entirely wrong.

Wrong because trust is a relationship-based phenomenon, occurring in the shared space between two people. Thus, trust must be both given and earned. Both supply and demand must exist for the marketplace (relationship) to thrive.

To say that "trust is earned" is to hide from one's own role in cultivating a healthy relationship. It is a dishonest yet very comfortable belief to hold.

The Two Trusts

Let's explore trust, with a focus on the workplace, in a bit more detail. To begin, it is helpful to define two forms of trust — "cognitive trust" and "affective trust" in the academic literature, or "head trust" and "heart trust" as more intuitive titles.

A standalone headline: the independent building of each of these forms of trust is a critical component in achieving high performance in the workplace (and elsewhere).

The two forms of trust highlight two distinct struggles at work. First, we let disagreements and judgments stand in the way of building head trust; Second, we pretend heart trust isn't present.

1. We fall short when head ("cognitive") trust gets hard

Head trust is associated with feelings of mutual reliability and competence in a relationship. If you feel comfortable delegating work, partnering on an important project, or letting someone borrow your car, you have cognitive trust. It is a rational (from your head or gut) belief about someone's ability to get things done.

To consider how to build cognitive trust, ask a simple question: do we do what we say we're going to do? An affirmative answer to this question is a foundation of healthy relationships. Building cognitive trust involves delivering on the promises that you make and recognizing others when they deliver on their promises.

It's easy to build cognitive trust with certain people. They are dedicated, competent, and dependable by nature. But your threshold of growth and development is beyond these individuals; growth occurs where trust gets hard: when things go wrong, when someone drops the ball (and maybe it's you). How do you choose to build and repair trust, or otherwise resolve the tension in the relationship, in those moments?

When a mistake happens, a deadline is missed, a promise is undelivered, how do you face it? Do you shy away? Do you "move on"? Do you gossip elsewhere? Do you make assumptions and cast judgments? These are all cognitive trust zappers.

An alternative approach involves moving towards the situation. As important as delivering on promises is to building cognitive trust, equally so is addressing the issue when we don't deliver on promises. Below are ways you can build cognitive trust in your working relationships:

1. Recognize that others may be struggling to trust you (sometimes a revelation of itself!):

  • We're mostly not aware of our own behavioral shortcomings, so ask others for examples of where you're slowing them down. Some people may feel uncomfortable answering this question honestly, so continue asking, over time and with gentleness, until you get a good answer. Others may answer with a little too much enthusiasm; do not take it personally or react emotionally. You are just collecting information.

  • Openly address areas in which you know you are struggling to deliver.

  • Admit when you've made a mistake.

  • Ask for clear expectations and deadlines when you agree to do work.

  • Pause before agreeing to do something that you aren't positive you can do.

2. When you are struggling to trust others' abilities, run through an internal checklist to expand your understanding and then have a conversation:

  • Do I know exactly what went "wrong"?

  • Did we align on the shared purpose of this work?

  • Did we make clear agreements around roles, work products, and deadlines?

  • Do we have the same incentives for success?

  • Have we each shared our ideas of what quality work looks like?

  • Are we missing other external factors that are impacting performance?

2. We are scared to build heart ("affective") trust

Heart (or "affective") trust is associated with feelings of comfort and belonging in a relationship. If you feel comfortable being silly or vulnerable or even quiet with someone, you have affective trust. It is feeling safe and supported in the presence of another being.

Associated with the heart as it is, this is the rarer form of trust in many workplaces. We are uncomfortable building heart trust in work relationships, which tend to quickly habituate into transactional and practical dialogues. The openness required to build affective trust can feel like a showing of weakness that neither side is willing to make the first move on.

Many bosses believe that a "distance" in working relationships is actually healthy, that we should not be too warm or friendly with our colleagues, because a closeness may interfere with sound, rational decision making. This is fear disguised as reason. Building affective trust does not require sacrificing an ounce of structure, clarity, or decisiveness.

What it does require is genuinely supporting the humans behind your "colleagues". The sorts of questions that are used to measure affective trust (my emphasis bolded):

  • If I shared my problems with this person, I know they would respond with care.

  • I can talk freely to this individual about difficulties I am having at work and know that they will want to listen.

  • I can openly communicate my feelings to this individual.

  • I would feel a sense of loss if I no longer worked with this person.

  • I feel safe taking risks with this person. (This language is borrowed from research on psychological safety, which rests upon a foundation of affective trust).

If I could summarize these measures into a single imperative: explore human moments with care. If this sounds "soft": individuals that strongly agree with the statements above are the smartest, hardest-working versions of themselves. Despite how men have been conditioned and then gone on to condition the environment of the workplace, there's nothing "weak" about human care. Heart trust is a show of force and strength, and it helps get things done.

Some simple actions to build heart trust. Pick one and try it out:

  • Be open about something you are struggling with, a mistake you have made, a thing that make you a human.

  • Ask for advice and help from someone new. If you are a person who struggles to do so, start by asking for advice when you don't think you really need it, and listen anyway. You might learn something, and you will make someone else's day better.

  • Ask about challenges others are facing, and listen to the answers. When you want to interrupt, rather than suggesting a solution, ask how you can help.

  • When your emotions are strong, talk about them. In return, ask how others are feeling and don't try to change the feeling when it is bad. Just listen.

  • Give others credit and recognition frequently and passionately.

  • When someone makes a mistake, forgive them; encourage them to try again.

  • Fuel others with appreciation for who they are not only what they do. People want to be liked! Tell them you like them and why (it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy).

The end.


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