3 Assumptions That Keep Leaders from Building Trust

Building and maintaining trust is an issue that most leaders agree is critically important, but few have a plan to achieve it. A recent survey by YPO showed 96% of chief executives said building and maintaining trust was a high priority for their success, yet just 34% of the respondents said they had defined and specific plans for building trust in their organizations. It reminds me of the old project management adage: people don’t plan to fail; they just fail to plan.

Street sign of the word trust with a red circle around it
Photo by Bernard Hermant

I’ve found that principle also applies in my work teaching leaders how to build trust in the workplace. Most leaders don’t plan to fail in building trust, they just fail to create a plan. I’ve observed three common assumptions leaders make that prevent them from building trust in a consistent and proactive way.

They assume trust “just happens.
Like some sort of relational osmosis, people figure trust just naturally develops over the course of time, and the longer you’re in relationship with someone, the greater the likelihood you’ll build a strong bond of trust. Well, if you believe that, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. Trust doesn’t work that way. Trust is based on perceptions, and those perceptions are formed by the behaviors you use. If you use trustworthy behaviors, you’ll be trusted. If you use behaviors that erode trust, people won’t trust you. Building trust is a skill that can be learned and developed, and once you have those skills, you can be intentional about acting in ways that build trust with others.

They assume others view trust the same way they do.
When I conduct training workshops on building trust, I often like to ask participants to draw a symbol or picture that represents trust. I’ve seen hundreds of representations of trust: wedding rings, a cross, a child holding a parent’s hand, a bank vault, and people shaking hands, just to name a few of the common ones. I conduct this activity because it illustrates the point I mentioned earlier: trust is based on perceptions. Everybody has their own view of what trust means, based on their unique personal experience. This varied understanding of trust reminds me of the classic movie, The Princess Bride. The character Vizzini uses the word “Inconceivable!” as an adjective to describe just about any situation, even if it doesn’t quite make sense. Finally, Inigo says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The same misunderstanding happens between leaders and their team members if they don’t share a common definition of trust.

They assume trust is only a “warm and fuzzy” concept.
When you discuss building trust, many leaders jump to the conclusion that you’re talking about building warm and fuzzy relationships. You know, the “let’s all hold hands and sing kumbaya” kind of warm and fuzzy. Well, trust does have a relationship component, and it’s the interpersonal connection that often sparks the development of trust in the first place. However, trust also has a hard, bottom-line impact on organizations. The research is clear that high-trust organizations have lower turnover, higher employee engagement, and outperform low-trust organizations on practically every measurable metric. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that pizza lunches, fancy off-site retreats, or ropes courses check the box for having a strategy of building trust in the workplace.

I’m sure you noticed I used the word “assume” in the three examples above; that was intentional. You’ve probably the heard the familiar warning about what happens when you assume, right? Well, when it comes to building trust, you don’t want to assume anything. Don’t assume trust just happens by chance. Have a defined plan for building and sustaining it. Don’t assume other people perceive trust the same way you do. Chances are they see it differently, and if you’re not on the same page as to what trust looks like in a relationship, your efforts in building trust will miss the mark. Finally, don’t assume trust is solely a “soft” relationship dynamic. Trust can literally make or break the success of your organization. To build trust, I’m reminded of another project management adage: plan your work and work your plan.

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