Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

What does it take to trust?

(because trust begins with “hope”)

Yes, I realize that the title is a tautology (at least I remember something from that Logic class I took in college), but we often focus so much on one side of trust that we don’t realize how just asking for someone to trust us is not enough.

There are a lot of theater exercises that center along the theme of trust. I have done a few of those “trust falls” like the video above and luckily they have all ended well. The idea, however, that you can do a trust fall with a group and that it will solve all of your problems is just plain naive. While that doesn’t mean that such exercises are useless, they cannot possibly stand in the place of looking at and understanding all the ways that we undermine trust in our relationships.

The more that I do work with communication, the more I understand that it is all about trust.

How can I get people to trust me more?

How can I get them to trust this process?

How can I get them to trust each other or themselves?

How do I convince them to trust that we are going in the right direction?


These questions are at the heart of every problem that organizations and groups face when they are trying to work their way through a challenging situation.

When Marissa Mayer first took over for Yahoo!, she gained the employees trust by being transparent and clear about the problems that the company was facing and the layoffs that it would be doing. She instituted a weekly meeting to answer questions and clarify uncertainty. People loved it and trusted her. When she stopped doing it, people started to grumble and complain that they were in the dark. They were (are?) beginning to lose their trust in her.

Mary Barra is facing a similar situation, I imagine, at GM. She is trying to change a culture that has been siloed, distrustful and arrogant for decades. She will have to not only gain the trust of the employees for this change, but also the trust of the consumer (and of congress).

Paul Levy, the once-celebrated CEO of Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, was lauded for his ability to gain trust and help transition that struggling institution by gaining the trust of the staff and the board. A full review of how he managed to do that and why it worked can be found in this Harvard Business Review article from 2005.

So, if trust is the key to success, how do we get more of it? How do we earn the trust of our clients, our staff, our board and our peers?

Here are a few things that we can do to influence and build trust:

1. Outline a clear, achievable goal

Whether we call these “vision statements,” “strategic plans” or “Big Hairy Audacious Goals,” we have to make sure that the language is clear, concrete and actionable. Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about this in their book Made to Stick, and Robert Cialdini talks about this in his book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. The more that you are able to integrate what people experience as the value of your organization into the core of your message, the easier it will be to develop that message.


2. Manage your emotions

There is a difference between managing emotions and controlling emotions. Those who try to control their emotions tend to wind up with “leaky faces.”


(What? No, I’m fine. Why?)

Leaders who feel frustrated with their teams and try to suppress their frustration will communicate that frustration and cause dissonance because everyone will know and no one will be able to talk about it. Again, Daniel Goleman talks about this a great deal in his books on emotional intelligence and resonance. The key is to acknowledge your feelings (to yourself first), see if they are about something you can control (usually no), and then breathe through them while letting go. Sometimes just saying out loud, “I am feeling frustrated with this situation” is powerful for a group and can lead to more trust (because at least they know what is going on with you).

3. Listen, listen, listen (but don’t try to please)

Listening continues to be one of the most important leadership tools for gaining trust and one of the hardest to learn. If you are a doer who is used to solving problems, then listening is going to be challenging. It isn’t impossible, but it will feel hard. That is because the majority of the listening that we have to do isn’t about solving problems. It is about meeting people where they are. When we listen and try to solve their problems we end of playing a game of whack-a-mole, which is frustrating for everyone involved.

(Unless it involves kittens, and then it is just cute.)

When we think that everything we hear is a problem that we should solve, we become part of the problem. Sometimes listening alone is all that is needed to build trust and move things forward.

4. People will reflect back to you what you give them

Maybe this is obvious, but it is really hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust you. And it is really hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust him or herself. If you are a leader of an organization or a team and every time you talk about them you are talking about how they fall short of your expectations, then you are going to erode trust. It isn’t that you can’t talk about their failures or limitations, it’s just that those cannot be the sum total of who they are to you. They will complain behind your back that you “micro-manage” them or that you won’t let them be successful, when all you want is for them to be successful and to not have to constantly stick your hand in their business.

The best way to deal with this is to make a list of all the things that you value in your team (and for the team to make a list of what it values in themselves as individuals). See where those lists overlap and begin there. Tell them the story of why you trust them more often than you tell them the story of how you don’t trust them.

Stop worrying about control (see step 2), and focus instead on the best sides of your team. People will reflect back to you what you offer them, and if you offer them a better story about themselves and their ability to change, then you will be started in the right direction.

Side note: Sometimes we have team members who are just not trustworthy. Sometimes we have legitimate reasons not to trust. Okay, but if you have someone who won’t catch you in a trust fall, then don’t do the trust fall. In fact, get a different team. Just don’t confuse lack of control over behavior with inability to perform. Ask yourself if what you are perceiving is fact or just your perception. The clearer you get at discerning the difference, the more effective you will be as a leader.

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