Building Trust in Four Steps

The Whirlwind of Trust, Transparency, Candor, and Integrity

There are all-hands meetings, and then there are all-hands meetings. Most of the folks I’ve worked with thought all-hands meetings were an unwelcome interruption in the day and made it harder to get work done. Well sure, it’s a meeting. At some companies where I’ve worked they’d been eagerly anticipated. In others, dreaded. Why?

Because people weren’t sure they’d get anything useful out of it. More importantly, they weren’t sure they could trust what they heard. Is the executive team going to help me understand how the business is doing? Will I get a sense of whether my job is safe or not? Will business success bring my success? Let’s hope these are the questions that are getting answered.

Or are we faced with “The Talking Heads” problem? Are they just going to pull the wool over my eyes? Is this just about platitudes and slogans? Maybe there’ll be a roll out of vacuous new mission statements and company goals that won’t really change my day to day. In this case, I’m probably better off playing buzzword bingo on my smartphone with my work buddies.

The assumptions people have walking into a meeting like this significantly influence what they are listening for and what they hear. Stephen Covey describes a lack of trust in these situations as a “tax.” He claims that “every communication, every interaction, every strategy, every decision is taxed, bringing speed down and sending costs up.” What’s worse, trust has been on the decline for a long time in business.

The Trust Bank

Think about someone at work (not a family member) you innately trust. You’d be willing to let him watch your kids. Have a key to your house. He walks up to you at 4pm on a Friday and says, “Ah… I have a personal thing I need to take care of… can you finish the report for me? I swear I’ll make it up to you.” “Not a problem.” What about if this was someone who you didn’t trust (for whatever reason) or didn’t know? Best case, you answer, “Oh no! What’s going on?” You many end up helping out, or you might come up with an excuse why you can’t.

The difference here is your trustworthy co-worker has deposits your mutual trust bank so today’s withdrawal is easy. The other person doesn’t. It’s empty or running a negative balance so her credit’s no good. Behaviors can differ radically when there’s a difference in trust. So how do you raise the balance of your trust bank with someone? It’s actually pretty simple, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the boss, employee, or co-worker:

  1. Agree to do things at an acceptable level of quality at an appointed time.
  2. Do those things at that level of quality or higher, on time or early.
  3. Proactively reset expectations if you’re going to miss your mark.
  4. Repeat.

Granted, there are probably a hundred other things you could do, but truly if you just do the above four, your deposits will slowly add up to quite a sizable sum in the bank.

That person you’d be willing to watch your kids & house? No doubt he’s made many claims about a thing he was going to do and then did them. The other guy? Probably broke promises and made excuses. Am I right?

The Recovery Paradox

Look, we’re all fallible. We make promises, we break them. We had good intentions at the time. Are we doomed to lose trust in these situations? Actually no. It’s more important that when we make mistakes we fix them quickly. In fact, when we fail we actually have a unique opportunity to gain trust! How does that work? It’s called the recovery paradox.

Let’s say there are a couple of coffee (or would you rather tea?) shops on your way to work. You alternate between them for whimsy. One day, the cuppa you get from the shop on the left tastes … stale. You make a face. The barista notices and asks, “Is everything okay?” Well, “No,” you respond. “My cuppa’s not good today. Stale I think?” The manager walks over. “I heard your cuppa’s stale. I’m very sorry. I did notice that it has been out too long this morning. I’ll go figure out how to make sure that never happens again, but in the meantime please accept my apology and this $20 gift certificate for your next several.”


“This is like the direct opposite of United Airlines,” you think. Amazingly, you are now more likely to visit the store that screwed up, than the one that never made a mistake in the first place.

Let me be clear here though: this only works if your failures are infrequent and, ideally, different. You can’t build trust on a foundation of apologies. You know how the manager said he’d go fix it? He’d better. +2 trust deposits if he tells you a week later how.

Well Defined Areas of Certainty and Uncertainty

A phenomenal former colleague of mine loved telling me he just wanted “well defined areas of certainty and uncertainty.” Probably a Douglas Adams fan. Yet it’s true, people do much better with certainty than uncertainty. Ridiculous as it may be, Donald Rumsfeld had a point. People just want to know how to bucket things: known knows, known unknowns, or unknown unknowns.

When talking to your team or organization, your people want the same thing. High levels of transparency into your thinking help set context for your organization and helps your people make better day-to-day decisions. Especially when you can draw a box of certainty around uncertainty.

For example, it’s one thing to say: “Yeah, we sure hope the launch goes well. We’ll have to wait and see.” That’s not confidence inspiring. It’s ambiguity-reinforcing. If you trust this leader, maybe it’s enough. If you don’t… then it’s unlikely you’re leaving the meeting feeling very comfortable about your job.

Contrast that with: “Well, we hope the launch goes well — but hope isn’t a very effective strategy. So, we’ve put together a team to monitor launch metrics in each market. We’re looking for uptime to stay above 98% and success means we see at least 100 new subscribers on the first day, increasing by at least 5% daily for the first week. If we don’t see that, we’re reconvening our launch team for a postmortem to identify what went wrong and what we’re going to do about it.” In this case, step #1 of trust building is clearly stated, along with a prescribed #2.

In both cases the message is “I hope this works.” But there’s clearly more that could be shared and the speaker in this case has made what we know clear, what we don’t know clear, and the mysteries of the universe remain mysterious.

If you’re a careful or even cynical reader, you may see a problem here. In some cases, very transparent leaders can run into issues. Maybe you know you’re running out of funding. It probably won’t be an issue, but it might. More experienced employees can handle some information better than less experienced ones, for instance. Most entrepreneurs have plenty of doubts about what they’re doing — but blind optimism helps them get through the lows to the next high. Therefore, what to make transparent and how to do so is always a judgement call and varies by situation. And remember, it’s okay to say: “That’s not something I can share right now. Why do you ask?”

Candor at an 8th Grade Level

Which of the following introductions would you rather hear at your all-hands?

“As an emerging competitor in this highly competitive and dynamic space, we’re leveraging our core competencies to change the paradigm of today’s health-conscious lunch dynamic. Nevertheless, incumbents’ current market reach and share of wallet are creating challenges for us in the channel that have inhibited our ability to fully realize our vision over the last quarter. I’m confident, however, that our dream to feed the world, one bowl of soup at a time, will be realized!”


“Folks, I’d love to tell you we’re doing awesome, but frankly we sold less than we planned last quarter. We missed our number. Don’t panic: we’re not running out of money, but we do need to do better. Our major issue is distribution. Our competitors are making it hard for us to get the kind of relationships we need to actually sell our product. So starting next week we’re bringing together key folks from sales, marketing, and product management to brainstorm how we fix this so I have better news next quarter.”

Hello, World!

This is bad news in both cases. In the former it’s sugar-coated business-jargoned mumbo jumbo. In the latter case it’s just plain bad news. Which would you rather hear? Which would you trust more?

There’s no question that candor is an essential ingredient in building trust and driving performance. Though in my mind, candor is made up of two parts. One half of it is being truthful about what you’re saying. The other half is about speaking plainly. In a way that’s accessible to your audience.

If you subscribe to the adage that communication is the responsibility of the speaker, then you want to make it easy for the listener to understand. Perhaps you’re worried you won’t “sound smart,” but more likely the audience will be caught up in your plainspoken story. This is increasingly important for international audiences: non-native english speakers have a much easier time understanding with this approach.

I prefer the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests to determine ease of understanding. Expressed either as a reading ease score or grade-level, it describes … well, how easy it is to read stuff. I find the grade level scores easier to wrap my head around, and remember.

As it turns out, there’s an increasing trend to put pressure on “complex” language and drive down the grade level of the written and spoken word. For example, President Obama’s first three State of the Union addresses came in at an average grade level of 8.4. This behavior certainly isn’t isolated to politics. Many of the “literary greats” sought extremely simple language as well.

As I was writing this, I figured I should see if I’m putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak. I ran the Flesch-Kincaid tests (in MS Word) against my last few similarly themed posts.


Putting It All Together

Building trust is not about team-building exercises, trust falls, or other forced shenanigans. Trust is a complex set of judgements we make as we interact with others on a day to day basis. For businesses and customers, trust remains as complex an issue as between people, if not more so. Still, it’s surprisingly straightforward (I don’t mean easy, though) to build trust over time.

Proactively setting and meeting expectations is an important first step at demonstrating integrity. Likewise, being forthright with your thoughts increases transparency — though must be done carefully. And finally, the more you can simplify your language, the less likely you’ll be misunderstood. And heck, even if you screw up (occasionally!), you can even be rewarded by recovering well.

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