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Got Trust?

I met last week with a CEO whose organization is a client. I shared my belief that employees would view my work with them as more credible if they knew the executive team had committed resources to tackle its own challenges with trust. The CEO, Greg, agreed his team has trust problems that are costly to the organization - and he seemed conflicted about whether to address these problems. If they're apparent and expensive, why is Greg reluctant to engage his team in important trust-building work?

The answer, I think, lies in the emotional discomfort that he imagines will accompany the work - beginning with the awkwardness of asking his executives whether they believe trust is an issue. I could go one step further and speculate that Greg holds himself responsible for any lack of trust that exists in the team. Giving voice to what he may perceive as a shortcoming of his leadership is something he'd prefer to avoid - even as he contemplates the "trust tax" that the organization is paying.

To be clear, Greg's hesitation is perfectly normal and human. Few of us are eager to step into vulnerable work of this sort, especially in the workplace. Trust talk gets emotional quickly, and trust can't be verified in the same way we can track on-time deliveries or reductions in procurement costs. It certainly isn’t as orderly as a P&L statement! Conveniently, this measurement difficulty makes trust easier to ignore.

Developing trust is difficult; repairing trust is even more so. In their book, Building Trust, Solomon & Flores write that establishing trust "begins with talk about trust - talk combined with action, to be sure, but talk first of all.”

Getting started often is the trickiest part. Some academics and consultants whose speciality is trust advise that we approach trust conversations by focusing on components of trust, rather than think as though trust either exists or it doesn't. I've encouraged Greg to bring Charles Feltman (sincerity, reliability, competence, and care) or Fred Kofman (intentions, competence, and capacity) into the conversation. Here's what I mean.

Greg’s CMO may worry that saying, "I don't trust you" to the CTO would elicit a defensive response and only make a strained relationship worse. Instead, the CMO might initiate a difficult and necessary conversation with the CTO by saying, "When you continually check your phone in our executive team meetings and run out of the room when it rings, it leads me to think you don't care about this team and the limited time we have to discuss critical strategic issues. I feel frustrated by this, and sometimes wonder whether you're committed to the organization's success. I would imagine you’re unaware of this and suspect you intend something different. What’s your perspective?"

I'm not suggesting there's a way to make conversations about trust easy. They just aren't. My goal is to highlight ways by which people can address the root cause of trust problems and, in so doing, build trust and improve their results.

I'll close with this: In their book Crucial Conversations, Grenny et al write, "Crucial conversations take time; but ultimately, the alternatives take longer and cost more."

What do you think? Please share your ideas by commenting below or contact me directly at

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