AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Willingness to Trust

Copyright 2001 AXIS Performance Advisors

Willingness to Trust

The precursor to trusting relationships

By Marsha Willard

Distrust artur84

Courtesy artur84,

The following is an adapted from our new book, The Trust Imperative, co-authored with Stephen Hacker of The Performance Center and published by the American Society for Quality. See the book description at the end of this newsletter. It should be available Nov. 2001

When people talk about trust (or more commonly, the lack of it), theyusually couch it in terms of what others do to damage trust. Often overlookedis the attitude each of us brings to relationships that sets the tone rightat the beginning for the level of trust that is created. But necessarily,in order to initiate or build trust in a relationship, at least one playermust be willing to take the first step. That means we can either wait forthe other person to step forward and do the right thing, or we can takethe initiative ourselves.

There are three areas in which each of us must test our willingness tomove a relationship forward: our willingness, first of all, to investthe time and energy it will take to build or repair trust in each relationship;our willingness to examine the assumptions we hold which may be blockingtrust, and most importantly, our willingness to take the risk onwhich all trust is based. We consider these three factors to be the hingeson the door to trust. Whether you open the door to trust a particular individualor group is a personal choice ­ no right answer exists. Obtaining ahigh level of consciousness concerning the degree to which you choose toopen the door of trust is the challenge.


Willing to Invest

Building trust requires effort and focus. By clarifying with whom andto what degree you intend to build trust you can increase the speed andlikelihood for strong and purposeful relationships. Is it important to buildtrust with a particular person? While it may seem intuitive, it is surprisinghow often people enter into a relationship with only a casual intent tobuild trust. We assume that trust will just happen; that we need only sitback and wait. This approach depends on amassing knowledge of or experiencewith another person. As we get to “know” someone, our trust graduallygrows. While this is a time-honored strategy, it has the distinct disadvantageof taking a lot of time. Waiting and watching is slow, unpredictable anddependent on serendipity to provide us the right experiences. Given thepace of most workplaces, this option is increasingly untenable.

As our interdependence with people increases, however, the optimal levelfor trust increases proportionally. When two our more people’s fates arelinked, when doing a job requires more than just your own effort, thereis a need to develop a trusting relationship in order to efficiently andeffectively achieve your common goal. We start to become more aware of thebenefits of trust. There is a demonstrated return for investing in thisrelationship; work will go easier and results are more likely to be better.We decide, sometimes unconsciously, that it is worth our investment of time,resources and/or energy to build this relationship.

Managers wishing to achieve the gains from a high-performance, empoweredworkforce obviously have a very high need for trust. Empowering employeeswho you do not trust sets you up for disappointment. Conversely, pretendingthere is trust behind empowerment makes a mockery of employee involvementand undermines management’s credibility and integrity. Employees will quicklyconclude that empowerment is just another manipulative ploy by managementto get more work done for the same pay.

Making the trust calculation more explicit helps us to assess the levelof effort needed as well as determine the level of effort that is prudentor economical. What level of trust does this relationship call for? Whatwill be the benefit of building trust here? How much effort or expense willit require? What explicitly do I need to do to move forward with trust?It is important to be purposeful in building trust. Conscious effort iswhat will accelerate the trust process.


Willing to Examine Assumptions

Our assumptions about how the world operates form the foundation of ourindividual beliefs and values. And our beliefs and values are what allowus to make choices and prioritize our lives. They also strongly influenceour “predisposition” to trust. In any given situation our experiences,our culture, and our biases help us determine whether to move forward withtrust or withdraw in distrust; whether we approach a situation with a Pollyannanaiveté, a “show me” attitude or something in between.

Consider how you might react were you to find yourself in either of thesetwo situations.

Scenario 1 ­ You are walking down an unfamiliar street shortlyafter dark. You are alone on the sidewalk except for three approaching figureswho are not immediately discernible. You are a little nervous as you arenot sure how safe this location might be. The three figures turn out tobe a young mother dressed in a business suit with her two young children.One of the children is carrying a baseball bat.

Scenario 2 ­ You are walking down an unfamiliar street shortlyafter dark. You are alone on the sidewalk except for three approaching figureswho are not immediately discernible. You are a little nervous as you arenot sure how safe this location might be. The three figures turn out tobe three young adult men dressed in low hanging baggy pants, leather jacketsand knit caps pulled low over their heads. One of the young men is carryinga baseball bat.

What were your reactions to each of the scenarios and how did they compare?What did you find yourself thinking or feeling as you read the two? If yourreactions differed, what were the underlying assumptions that led you tothe differing conclusions? Did you perceive the baseball bat differentlyin the two scenarios? If so, why?

There are no right or wrong reactions. But whatever our reactions orresponses, they will have influence on the relationships or results of thesituation. Each of our responses are colored by assumptions formed by whatwe were taught (for example, what you may have read in the news about crimestatistics), what we have experienced first hand (perhaps you have beena victim of crime yourself) and by associations we form between new situationsand familiar ones (one of the young men may resemble your own son).

By choosing to examine those assumptions you uncover the beliefs thathold truth and those that do not; the beliefs that are working for you andthose that are working against you in building trust with others. Notedmanagement consultant and author Peter Block says, “Trust is an expressionof our inner world, not a reaction to people and events.” He believesthat it is far more productive to turn around our complaints about lackof trust in someone else and examine how we feel or act when we are withthat person. He maintains that it is likely our response to situations thatbother us rather than anything anyone else does. Keeping our feelings andreactions to ourselves enables us to blame the other person for what weare feeling. Our trust is diminished in that person because we gave himthe power to affect us. If your goal and intent is to build trust, it maybe important to surface and examine the feelings and assumptions that willlikely influence your actions. Being aware of the psychological factorsat work inside of us can help us challenge non-productive perceptions.


Willing to Risk

The most important component in our trust calculation is risk. It’s whatwe measure our investment against, and it’s what colors our assumptionsand predisposition to trust. While it may be the one thing that most holdsus back from pursuing trust, it is by definition necessary to the process.Without risk, no trust is gained.

There are a number of types of risk that play into trust building. Whenwe enter into a trust-building relationship we are putting one or more ofthem on the line. The risk might be to personal safety, property, existingrelationships, or reputation. We put these things at risk in different ways;by exposing our selves (openly sharing proprietary or confidential information;disclosing details about our selves; admitting when we are wrong, sharingour thought processes or our ignorance, etc.), by authorizing others toact on our behalf, by pursuing an untested path/trying something new, orby operating on unspoken agreements. Clearly there are situations whereit is imprudent to risk to trust because the cost is too high or becausethe person or institution in which we are considering bestowing trust hasdemonstrated untrustworthiness. Most of us exercise what we would call “trustwith prudence” which enables us to seek trust even when the pay offis low by minimizing our risk or seeking guarantees to protect our assets.

While we are often acutely aware of what can be lost when we risk totrust, what is often excluded from the calculation is the cost of NOT buildingtrust. Where the risk is too great, we often fall back on contractual arrangementswith enforceable consequences. But this protection comes at a cost. Thecost is in the controls, the monitoring, the guarantees, securities of deposit,and enforcement. There is also a significant cost in time where trust islow or conditional, the added time and work it takes to double check, towait and see. We pretend that conditional trust buys us the time and experiencewe need to develop the knowledge-base for trust. We test each other undercontrolled conditions first while we check each other out. But this approachmay not do what we think. It may only teach us how trustworthy we are undercontrolled conditions. We each may behave very differently once the controlsare removed.

Labor contracts, for example, are designed to protect workers from exploitation.While they are effective at doing this, they also serve to prevent the creationof trust. Relationships may be fine between labor and management in an organization,but there is always the suspicion that it is because of the protection ofthe contract. No one trusts the relationship will hold in the absence ofa contract. As an example, a paper mill in the area was trying to implementself-managing work teams. Everyone (labor and management alike) knew thatthe old contract system of promoting solely on the basis of seniority wasnot in alignment with the culture of ownership and empowerment they weretrying to create. But as the union steward told us, “when the teamsare given the authority to hire, fire and promote, then we absolutely willdo it on the basis of merit. But until management relinquishes that authority,we will continue to do it by seniority.” Clearly the union did notyet trust management because they had not yet seen how they would behavein the absence of the guarantees provided by the contract.

Another aspect of risk has to do with the approach we take to it. Dowe risk to build trust or do we “risk to disappoint?” Am I reallybuilding trust if my risk is to set you up to fail? We’ve seen this playout many times in organizations. Consider the organization that suffersfrom low trust between labor and management. Management takes the risk ofimplementing self-managing teams, trusting team members to make responsibledecisions on behalf of the organization. Skeptical of their motives, employeesaccept the risk of the added accountability but often do so with a riskto disappoint attitude. At the first management slip, they triumphantlyproclaim the effort is the sham they had suspected all along. Risking todisappoint provides the platform for righteousness and in the end sendstrust building efforts several steps backward.

The conversation is only slightly different when the issue is regainingtrust where it has been damaged. We often speculate about the reasons behindthe question, “Why should I trust again when I have been burned?”It seems to us that there are four different motivations for the question:

  • You simply want the encouragement to do what you know you must do because you still see a pay-off to having another go (or else why would you even be considering it?).
  • You want help figuring out if you are being unwise. You are unclear about the calculation for trust; how the costs stack up against the benefits.
  • You are clear the risk is too great, but still need to move forward with the relationship and don’t know how.
  • You want someone to agree that you are right about the other person being untrustworthy.

Whatever the motivation you have five different options at your disposal:

1. You can risk again. Only you can decide if this is prudent or wise. Our stance is, however, that trust is not built unless some risk is involved.

2. You can mitigate the risk. You can take another chance, but diminish the possible negative consequences to you. You might trust an employee or team to make purchases, but limit the amount they can spend at one time.

3. You can impose consequences on the other person. This is contractual trust wherein the parties make agreements that link consequences to untrustworthy behavior. If I find out that my team has been using their spending authority for their own self-interests, I can revoke the authority they were given and perhaps impose a penalty or disciplinary action. This approach is often necessary, but it does not build trust.

4. You can back off the relationship. You may decide, after all, that the risk and effort are not worth it. You don’t ever have to empower your employees, if you so choose. Clearly, though, no trust is gained as we have eliminated the opportunity for building it all together.

5. You can risk to disappoint. I might take a risk knowing that you will fail so that I can righteously break off the relationship. Our litigious society has made this too acceptable an option. We have seen managers set employees up in this way to get the ammunition they need to legally fire them. This is the antithesis to trust building. This approach builds distrust. Not only with the individual but also with other employees who witness or hear about your bad faith efforts. And every time you retell the story of your disappointment, you develop additional distrust in others.



Willingness to trust is an often overlooked component of trust and yet,ironically, it is often the best place to start the trust building process.Acknowledging the willingness we bring to a relationship is an importantfirst step to progress. It also empowers us with the attitude and claritywe need to move forward with trust. Management consultant, Peter Block says,

I can create a high trust environment anytime I want. All I have to realizeis that I am creating the environment in which I live. We are afraid ofbeing naive and a fool if we continue to trust in the face of betrayal.Well, what is so great about being strategic and clever? And what is sowrong about being a fool? Maybe the willingness to be a fool is the exactmeans of creating the high trust world that we each long for.

The Trust Imperative

New Book Shows Organizations How to Improve Performanceby Developing Trust

November, 2001 – ASQ Quality Press announces a new book The TrustImperative: Performance Improvement Through Productive Relationships,by Steven Hacker and Marsha Willard.

Today’s businesses environment is highly demanding and increasingly competitive,requiring organizations to be flexible, responsive, and continually innovative.In order for this to happen, there must be a high degree of trust throughoutthe organization. Leaders need to trust that their workers will carry out
their directives, and employees need a high level of trust in the vision
and direction that leaders create for the organization. Without this trust
an organization will struggle to reach its goals and attain the success
desired. This is the focus of The Trust Imperative: Performance Improvement
Through Productive Relationships,
by Steven Hacker and Marsha Willard,
which explains how to develop trust throughout an organization, while improving
performance and increasing productivity.

Many organizations have major problems as they try to gain the trust
of their own personnel, as well as the trust of their customers and suppliers.
In many cases, an organization’s attempts to gain trust lack credibility
and create more problems than they solve. The Trust Imperative helps
break through these obstacles, by offering a straightforward method for
assessing trust across an organization. The book offers simple conceptual
models, assessments, and trust tools which will help individuals diagnose,
measure, and improve the level of trust within the organization. The authors
then provide succinct tips and techniques to support the continuous developmentof trust within any organization. The book also includes actual assessmentforms and trust building tools and activities are included.


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