Last month, The World Summit on Organizational Development met here in Portland, Oregon, my home town. Among other things, I had the pleasure of attending this plenary session by Adam Kahane, “Doing Organizational Development Beyond the Organization: What It Takes to Solve Today’s Toughest Problems”
I loved his talk. It was insightful and practical. And funny. Speaking of collaboration, Kahane put up a slide listing requirements for effective collaboration among diverse and even antagonistic stakeholders. The usual suspects were there: common vision, agreement on goals, trust, etc. And then one by one, he debunked them. The reality of what it means to collaborate in the 21st century is this: knowing how to have conflict, working without trust, and foregoing the luxury of shared goals and visions.
And then Kahane said this, a phrase I’ve used many times: trust is not a precondition to working together, it’s the result. Let me say it again: trust is not a precondition, it’s an outcome
The assumption that we begin with trust, is not just naïve, it’s also not possible.
And yet, I hear it all the time with the teams and organizations I work in and with. When I ask what the problem is, people often say “We don’t trust each other,” or “we need more trust on this team.” I don’t get it. The lack of trust is the result, not the cause. How can there to be trust before teamwork?
When people speak about trust in this way, they’re not talking about building teamwork but guaranteeing it: “First create the conditions for perfect success by demonstrating you will never disappoint me, thus proving to me you are 100% trustworthy, and then we can work together.”
Life doesn’t work like that. We cannot place our capacity to act and succeed in the actions of another. We cannot mitigate risk. We cannot guarantee success at the outset. Not in the workplace, and not in relationships. We get involved with untested people. We commit, marry, sign a mortgage and have children with people who have not been vetted. Why? Because it takes a long time to really know someone. And what about us? We’re also unproven. We don’t know ourselves fully either. We cannot know who we will be in five years. Life changes us. Loss, grief, financial and family struggles change our value systems and our outlook. Even moment to moment, we cannot be fully honest about our motivations and feelings. We have limits, conflicts, and stresses of which we know nothing.
And this brings me to the second problem with trust. If we do make the conceptual leap I’m describing, and see that trust has to be earned, the next misconception involves how to earn it.
How do we earn trust? By proving ourselves trustworthy of course.
But that’s impossible. No one is ever fully trustworthy. The dirty little secret behind the billion dollar “trust and teamwork” industry is that being fully trustworthy is not possible.
We’re going to disappoint people. We are going to prove ourselves untrustworthy. As long as there is some part of us of which we’re not fully aware, as long as we are growing beings, we will have blind spots. We will say one thing, feel another, and do yet another, without being cognizant of it.
- We say yes, and override our exhaustion, because we don’t want to disappoint people, but we don’t have the energy to follow through.
- We agree to help because we’re driven by a need to be useful, but we’re overcommitted and drop the ball.
- We are desperate for recognition so we join a team with a high profile but feel out of our depths and can’t really deliver what we’ve said we would.
- We get hurt when our idea is rejected, and then become unconsciously obstructionist and difficult to work with
There are a million reasons why, in any given moment, our behavior undermines our trustworthiness.
So, how do we build trust? Whom do I trust, if no one is fully trustworthy?
I trust people who make mistakes, fail to meet their goals, let me down, and can admit it, apologize, and be honest about their shortcomings.
Trust is developed not by avoiding mistakes and conflicts, but by making and repairing them. Trust is not developed by making good on your word, but on what you do after you break it.
Here’s what builds trust, in my experience:
- Stop measuring trust as an all or nothing deal. I can be trusted for some things, but not others. Know what you can’t be trusted on, and make sure people know that. Befriend the fact that people are inherently unreliable, and learn to work with it, instead of pretending you can prevent it.
- Learn how to identify and admit your shortcomings. The more we know our limits, and can discuss them with others, the more forewarned and thus forearmed everyone is. Our desire to be perfect makes us hide our shortcomings, and this makes us untrustworthy.
- Master the art of apology. People who cannot apologize are protecting themselves at the expense of the teamwork. Apologies are not just admitting wrongdoing, and saying you’re sorry. Apologies must also include understanding, and expressing your empathy over the discomfort or difficulty that the other person experienced as the result of your actions. Unless you know and feel what your actions resulted in, you’re not really apologizing.
We will disappoint each other. But it’s what happens afterwards that builds trust. If you can have an honest conversation about your own and the others’ limitations and issues, the things that make you both untrustworthy, then you have just put into place the foundation for trust.