Rebuilding Trust: a million tiny bridges

“How can I build trust here?”

A client asked me this recently, regarding a situation in which a breach between him and his boss had occurred; his desire to do the right thing and lead his team was clear, but the sadness about what had happened was just as present.

Tricky — so now suddenly we’re talking about intimacy, and vulnerability, and hurt? At work? As if things weren’t complicated enough already? Interestingly enough, I pull from the canon of relationship therapists and scholars in the course of executive coaching all the time. Where there is collaboration, there are relationships; where there are relationships, there is power, and behavior, and so on.

Trust can be broken by all sorts of mechanisms. Sometimes, a direct violation occurs. Other times, there’s a need that’s been going unmet for a long time, so that resentment builds, and the feeling of safety slowly erodes. But fundamentally, trust is rooted in an underlying assumption of the competence and reliability of another; as with most things, it’s closely tied to respect.

There are as many ways to build trust as there are to break it. But they all have one thing in common — a mode of operating I like to call EYES FORWARD.

In leadership (and, by extension, relationships) we draw ourselves out of a messy, painful situation of broken trust by focusing on the future. You can’t mop up a mess without a source of clean water — and the alternative is just spreading the muck around.

The passage of time is our greatest ally when building trust; and I don’t mean the merciful forgetfulness of years going by. I mean right now, within moments of a breach, we introduce the cleansing power of the future.

The renowned psychologist John Gottman ties the building of trust to what he calls attunement — made here into a clever acronym:

Turning toward
Non-defensive responding

Over his decades of research, Gottman found that people who practice attunement with one another build trust more quickly. From that mindset, we can adopt a playbook.

  1. Assign responsibility, not blame. Try starting with yourself, shutting up, and see what happens next.
  2. Revisit your personal vision for the future. This means answering the question: What do I want? Ground down into that desire. Meditate on it. Reclaim it. Own it. “I want a focused and communicative organization.” or “I want a happy and productive team.”
  3. Act like you want it. This is a commitment to building a million tiny bridges; signals that the people around you can take cues from, and use to re-center themselves. Some ideas, which pull from the ATTUNE ideology:
  • Take a deep breath before speaking.
  • Practice active listening to your reports and your superiors.
  • Resist the urge to gossip.
  • Issue praise and thank-you’s with abandon. This is a great example of turning toward, another critical Gottman concept for successful, happy relationships of all kinds.
  • Approach new ideas with curiosity.
  • Increase autonomy of your subordinates, but increase their access to your feedback.
  • Be the chill you want to see in the world. If that means taking some time to re-center, take it now.
  • Let people make mistakes. Oh, you thought you were done? Buckle in; trust deepens as you repeat this process with every stress-test. Despite conventional belief, trying to prevent others’ mistakes doesn’t improve the outcome — it just erodes trust.

Rebuilding trust: Eyes forward. One day at a time; one bridge at a time.

Becca Camp