Building trust is like making Mac & Cheese. (Obviously one of the great adages of our time.) You can go the instant route and it will check all the boxes but in the end its just not right. Slow and steady carefully working in each step is the only way to make it just right. I would guess you’ve never thought of it that way but now, you may not be able to avoid it. Seriously though we’ve all had people try to take shortcuts to trust with us, and probably used some of the orange powdered stuff ourselves from time to time when we thought we could get away with it. The same is true of trust. It takes time to build that foundation so obviously people will want to use any life hacks they can come up with to speed the process along.
I had a boss once who tried to build all of the trust in one conversation, this is a recipe for disaster. We had worked in the same company for some time but I only recently started reporting to him, and working directly with him for that matter of a few weeks. I was sitting in his office discussing plans for work that we would complete in the coming months and somehow he changes the subject to talk about a personal medical condition he developed while in an internship in college. I genuinely cared about the story and listened intently, though I wasn’t sure how we got here, I am always up for a good tangent. We got back on track and I mentioned a project that I wanted to start to realign jobs within the unit. I was musing about needing assistance from from other departments and asked for advice in engaging HR on pay ranges that made sense with others in the department. He sort of smirked and said, I’ll take care of that. I thanked him for offering to work with them for me and he said ‘no I’ll review, I know things.’ After I asked why since that information wasn’t shared, he said sometimes I just need to know things with the same smirk. OK, moving on! I continued down my list of projects with him affirming my plans or redirecting some as he saw fit. Finally I got to the one I was really excited about, one that would require careful change management and buy in from all of the managers in the department. I touched on the logistics of the project itself but as I explained I spent the most time discussing our communication plan and how that would need to work. He waved both hands in front of him as if annoyed by my plan and responded, “We’ll just tell them to get on the bus or get run over.” I’m pretty sure I just sat there dumbfounded at the response. I mean, I’ve said some variation of that myself over the years but after implementing, after you’ve done all of the things to support, educate, and facilitate the change. You don’t typically include it as part of your strategy and planning discussion.
This boss of mine was pretty notorious for being hot and cold in their relationships with their people. With good reason! Even with good intentions, that I do know he had, he was certainly not building the trust he’d hoped to. He was making an effort to show his support for me, prove the value he could add, and check the box on trust with that three step store bought goodness shining through. Let’s break down the different approaches he used all in this one meeting and how they can work when applied correctly.
The me first approach. Some people like to show they can be trusted because they trust. If they want another person to trust them they’ll share things about themselves, without getting too vulnerable, to show that they are trust worthy because they are also trusting. It puts people more at ease when they are able to relate to you and when they know that you do trust them. This can be pretty effective form of building trust with people. The challenge is that it still takes time and you have to know where the line is on your vulnerability. It can be a pretty small window of what is appropriate and effective on the personal scale. For example, starting out a meeting with a story of your medical condition with someone who truly barely knows you will not be effective.
The knowledge approach. This one is sort of like the reverse psychology your old teacher tried to pull on you. “I already talked to Johnny and I know everything. Do you want to tell me your side of the story?” It is more subtle when you’re grown and can look more like offering bread crumbs and questions about a topic waiting for someone to share more or ask for more. The intent is to show that someone already trusted you, and you clearly aren’t sharing, so this new person can trust you too. It can put people at ease if they really do need to confide in someone but the trick is to do it honestly and know the line of what is and isn’t appropriate to share that you already know. You’d hate blow your trust with one person as you were trying to build it with another. Obviously the challenge would be that you come off sounding like that elementary school teacher. It also can come across a little smarmy as if you’re trying to show off that you know things that others don’t. For example, flaunting that you have prohibited information.
The follow me approach. Interestingly enough some people are able to flip the narrative. They just declare they should be trusted and then assume that they are. This version is interesting because it puts the onus on the other person. The assumption is that as I move forward you will trust me and follow behind and you’ll see that I will develop a track record you can trust in the future. This one can have some obvious pit falls. I really only suggest using this one after you have a track record you can point back to with the majority of the group. For example, if you have a full team of people with whom you have developed trust and one person is lagging behind with no objective reason, don’t dwell on them. Ask them to follow you and move forward with or without them. This is wholly different than a ‘get on the bus or get run over’ strategy.
Allow your relationships to simmer over time patiently melting the butter, mixing in the flour, and slowly whisking in your milk. This is a process that will take less time as you practice and develop your own groove but it will always take time. Enjoy the care you take in each step to have a beautiful quality outcome. Your friends, family, and co-workers will thank you (for both sides of the analogy).
Things I’m reminding myself of
Its OK to have a strategy around building your relationships and earning trust, in fact, I would encourage you to have a strategy. I’m not suggesting you just leave things to chance and hope that someone will trust you in the end. Use these approaches but use them with intentionality over time. Reflect on how you’re doing, and how effective it is, often to help you improve here just like you do everywhere else.