The Number One Way to Build Trust

This is a follow-up post to “Three Not-So-Easy Steps to Prepare for Change.”

From @OwenGreaves on Twitter: “I trust you until you give me a reason not to trust you.”

When I first started working at my current university, I was introduced as the new Registrar at a faculty event. While mingling in the crowd afterwards, a faculty member said to me, “Welcome here. Watch your back.”

Now there is a greeting to give you the warm fuzzies, eh?

He wasn’t alone in his sentiments. I received a several similar warnings over the next while. I quickly learned that my workplace had an issue with trust.

Trust is hard to win and easy to lose. It can take years to build and a millisecond to collapse. As Glenn Keeler commented earlier, building trust can feel like a Sisyphusian task.

Much like Herzberg’s Hygiene Theory of motivation, there are certain basic things that must be in place but they don’t necessarily help us build trust. For example, good hygiene will not feed you at the dinner table, but washing your hands will help to keep you from throwing up after eating – it’ll help keep the food in your stomach.

Let’s apply this concept to trust. Keep your nose clean: don’t lie, steal, cheat, or otherwise be dishonest. That’s just good hygiene – it will not built people’s trust in you, but you can’t give them a reason to throw you out, either.

How do you establish trust?

Trust is a very personal feeling, I believe it must start with the individual and is very personal. What does that mean?

It means that I must do everything I can to enlarge the other person. People know when you’re angling for a piece of their pie. They’ve been burned before and they’re wary. But if people see that you really are working in their best interest, seeking to enlarge their sphere of influence and span of control, they will begin to trust you. More than that, they will extend some level of personal loyalty towards you as well. Yes, there are sociopaths out there who will use you but, like the policies you create, you can’t live in the exceptions. Simply guard yourself against these people while enlarging someone else.

Where do you start?

Start with your boss. Make him or her look very wise that they hired you and you can’t lose. And do the same with your closest staff members – the people who report directly to you. Help them succeed and look good doing so and they’ll go the extra mile.

My current boss did this for me. Shortly after I was hired, there was a small flurry of attention given to something called “The Bologna Process”. I’d heard of it, but was only vaguely familiar with it. My boss called me up and said, “Grant, you’re going to be invited to a meeting and the Provost might ask you a question about the Bologna Process. Are you familiar with it?”

“Oh yes,” I replied (he didn’t ask me how familiar, but I think he suspected I knew very little).

I shut my door, and over the next couple of hours I made myself extremely familiar with it. When I was called to the meeting, the Provost turned to me and asked me to explain the potential impact of the Bologna Process for TWU. I spoke like an expert on the subject and the Provost thereafter considered me one of the best hires in recent memory (his words to me several years later).

In short, my boss gave me enough warning so I was able to make a good first impression. That endeared me to him immensely, and enlarged my influence with the Provost and the rest of the people around the table. Do this as often as you can. Your staff and your boss will trust you for it.


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