Solving the Mystery of Trust

Trust isn't mysterious. It is, however, easy to break and takes hard work to rebuild.

Trust isn't mysterious. It is, however, easy to break and takes hard work to rebuild.

But the fact that gaining or regaining trust does not require figuring out the mysteries of life – but instead relies on the effort you put into it – should give heart. You can build trust.

The common sense notion of trust is as good as anything found in a text book. In a nutshell, if you trust me, you expect that what I say is accurate to the best of my knowledge. You also expect that I will do what I say I will do. In other words, you can count on me.

So what makes trust so easy to break and difficult to build in our nonprofit organizations? Here are some possible reasons:

  1. Lack of clear vision and expectations. There is a lack of agreement on expectations, potentially due to misunderstandings, inadequate communication and confusion. Perhaps leadership is not sure of what direction to move in or don’t communicate the vision clearly. Perhaps supervisors are not well trained and do not communicate clear performance expectations to staff.
  2. Uncharacteristic behavior. Under pressure, some leaders may act in ways that others don’t expect (“we didn't plan on lay-offs, but...”).
  3. Superficial relationships. Relationships are weak: we don’t know the “other,” so stereotypes are maintained. People may interact based on their preconceptions or assumptions about each other, rather than getting to know each other more deeply.
  4. Ends vs. means. People are rewarded for speedily meeting goals at any cost, giving relationships and commitments less priority.
  5. A cumulative effect. Once an expectation is not met, trust will be impacted. The more it happens, the more trust is damaged, and the more work at rebuilding trust will be needed.

When someone is not trusted, others don’t believe they can count on him or her. Note that this may be a perception rather than the “objective” truth. There may, at the core, just be a terrible misunderstanding. Or people work on the suspicions created by previous incidents.

But whatever the case, perceptions are reality, and they influence behavior. It’s necessary to name and respond to the impact perceived trust-breaking has had as part of rebuilding trust.

Building & Rebuilding Trust

Here are a few ideas for building and rebuilding trust:

  • There’s no magic bullet. Building and rebuilding trust only happens over time when people experience ongoing accuracy and follow-through from each other.
  • Plan. Planning can help get everyone on the same page, by clarifying and building unity around direction. Involving others in dialogue about key decisions that affect them day-to-day helps people feel empowered and elicits a broad range of insights.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. One can't communicate enough! “I sent an email,” just doesn’t cut it. Some messages are too important to rely on any one form of communication, so communicating via multiple means, and repeating crucial messages, may be necessary.
  • Work for understanding. If you’re in a leadership position, find out what people’s perceptions and concerns are. Don’t immediately react defensively and argue, but try to understand other’s perspectives. Facilitating a process for “naming the elephants in the room” can go a long way to opening communication and perspective sharing. An outside, neutral facilitator can be helpful here.
  • Admit mistakes. No one is perfect, and it’s hard to trust someone who tries to project an image of infallibility. You know they’re hiding something!
  • Facilitate relationship building. Provide opportunities for people to get to know each other, counter stereotypes and create a foundation for trust.

Trust is essentially a simple idea. Yet to maintain or rebuild it takes commitment to integrity, and it requires organization-wide skills in communication, supervision, planning and team-building. And the organizational culture must reward truth-telling and constructively working issues out.

Okay, maybe trust is not so simple after all – but it’s not mysterious.

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