“How can I get my employees to be straight with me?” That question came from the back of the room a few weeks ago while I was delivering a workshop on leadership presence. We were addressing concepts of approachability and influence, and the participant raised a frequent complaint about the employee-manager dynamic. Often it’s a relationship that’s passable but not very open or rewarding.
And while we would all benefit from straightforward communications, there’s usually more static than clear reception. More often than not, the culprit is trust.
Trust is the gatekeeper in any relationship. But in those where an inherent guardedness exists, such as with sales or management, trust plays an even greater role. In my book, The Power of Presence, I dedicated an entire chapter to the concept of trust, based on my favorite model of trust from The Trusted Advisor. (More in this prior blog.) With its factors of credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation, the authors’ trust equation is both a prescriptive and a diagnostic for enhancing trust.
I recently sat down with fellow Forbes blogger Andrea Howe, co-author of the Trusted Advisor Fieldbook with Charles H. Green, to discuss how to build more trust into relationships. Howe travels the country helping organizations — including many professional services companies — lead with trust.
KH: What did you set out to do with your latest book?
AH: The goal was to create a book that combines inspiration and practicality. We wanted to further demystify and discern common issues that professionals encounter on a day-to-day basis, and define what trustworthy responses look like. For example, how do you build a trustworthy organization? How do you develop business with trust? How do you deal with a client who seems to be a jerk? We outline specific situations and show how you can look at them through the lens of trust.
KH: What does trust have to do with your career?
AH: Everything. If you look at all the angles of a career — your personal advancement, doing what you need to do to get ahead, creating connections, building a network, leading people, being a thought leader — trust has a greater and greater impact. I don’t know how you do those things in an extraordinary way without cultivating trust along the way.
Without high degrees of trust we can all muddle along. If you want to differentiate you need to make trust part of your everyday thinking and actions.
Being a trusted advisor is a term that’s used widely, like “Xerox.” But it’s really about setting yourself apart.
KH: What are some typical or recurrent trust-testing situations?
AH: I work with a lot of people in client-facing roles, such as in professional services. One big trust-testing moment occurs when you’re in a business relationship with someone and they confront you with a question when you either don’t know the answer or are unsure how your answer will land with the other party. Whenever this happens, this tests our ability to establish intimacy and take risks. While we naturally feel afraid about the outcome, this is actually one of our most important trust-building opportunities.
My co-author Charlie Green always says, “The thing we’re most afraid to say is often what will build the most trust.” Especially for leaders, this means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
In general, trust-testing situations happen when we’re afraid…of looking badly, losing the deal, stepping into a territory that’s outside our comfort zone. That’s what drives our high self-orientation. Fear kills trust in the moment if we don’t manage it and overcome it.
KH: Are there tips to take the trust path in a pinch if you feel that fear?
AH: First recognize you’re in that moment of fear. If not, you’ll be driven by it. How you manage it varies widely from person to person. This can range from taking a deep breath to acknowledging or thinking out loud. It’s okay to say: “Boy do I wish had a beautiful, articulate answer for that. Let me think out loud about it.”
Getting curious is a great antidote for high self-orientation, as it requires you to get away from yourself and into the other person’s world. If you can find ways to acknowledge what’s going on over there, and ask questions to find out more, this shifts your attention.
For example, if a client comes at you angry or dissatisfied, a typical reaction is fear or anxiety. Instead you could acknowledge that you’re disappointed in the result as well, and ask to hear more about the customer’s experience. Say, “Help me understand.” And be genuine. Set an intention in the moment to get the whole world of the other person.
KH: How do you handle building trust when it’s been eroded, such as from an undermining colleague or a deal gone bad?
AH: We all have examples like that, where things have gone south and we’re prepared for the worst. But it’s how we handle it that makes or breaks trust, not the circumstances.
There’s a poignant story in the Fieldbook that involves an unhappy customer who has endured significant staff turnover on his account. The project manager had to call the customer and say that, yet again, there would be a change in resources. In this instance, the project manager let the customer vent, acknowledged his frustration, and offered to help him find a better service provider. Not only did the project manager’s empathy and courage de-escalate the situation, but the customer, in turn, affirmed his loyalty to her firm.
Most situations are far more recoverable than we think. We try to recover by showing our competency, but instead we need to show more vulnerability. It doesn’t work as a tactic, but by being real. All kinds of situations can turn for the better in an instant. It’s normal to be convinced in our own minds that things won’t change, or to conveniently rationalize that it won’t make a difference because then we don’t have to lean in and do the hard thing. The only catch is it simply isn’t true that we can’t recover. The question, more often, is are we willing to do what it takes to recover.
KH: How can companies strengthen their ability to be trusted employers?
AH: Companies that have a trusted culture live the trust principles. They are other focused, collaborative, drive medium- and long-term perspectives, and are transparent. Many companies say they do this, but most don’t. The ones who have trust at their core live it out. For example, when a scandal hits, they say “we messed up.” They aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. They are willing to have faith in their employees and stakeholders. And their stakeholders tend to respect, value and trust people more who are real. It’s not about not making mistakes—because we all make mistakes—but taking responsibility for them.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges. This post also appears on Forbes.com.