As both a Clinical Psychologist and an Executive Coach, many of the clients I have worked with in different capacities lack trust in their relationships.
In the workplace employees often don’t trust their boss with the frustrations they experience, they worry that it might impact the way their manager views them and their capabilities. Conversely, managers often don’t realize how beneficial this information could be to them, both in developing leaders and benefiting the success of the organization. So they don’t focus on building a trusting relationship with their subordinates.
Yet just understanding and acknowledging these frustrations can increase morale, workplace efficiency and productivity. Employees might be retained or supported to develop their skills and working environments can be changed and improved to the benefit of all employees.
Discomfort and Resistance to Sharing
In the same ways that employees are uncertain about sharing difficulties managers often shy away from revealing their feelings or shortcomings. Many leaders feel uncomfortable opening themselves up to others, there is a belief that as a manager you should be objective and professional, but often this takes away the personal element of the relationship.
People relate to people, they want to know each other and understand how others think. Without a trusting relationship that allows for open communication people makes assumptions about what others think and believe and react to them on this basis. Are their assumptions correct? – typically not.
We all think differently and our predictions about how others see a situation are based on our knowledge and emotions. We tend to believe that others think and feel as we do. The more we allow people into our thought processes the better and more effective our communication becomes, and this is why trust is important. In a western culture, it can feel awkward to open up to others, to trust what they will do with the information they share. At some level it makes us vulnerable and most of us are uncomfortable with this.
To be or not to be vulnerable?
As a leader, it can feel like there is sensitive information you should not share about the company or its development. Judgement is key here but if you have good relationships based on trust it becomes easier to make that judgement. To understand who you can bounce ideas off, who you can ask for practical advice and who you can open yourself up to for personal development.
This is an issue I come across often in the C-suite and with CEOs. It reflects the saying “it’s lonely at the top”. You have fewer peers, your responsibilities are greater but the weight of decisions falls on you. That is a lot of pressure and stress. Having relationships inside and outside of the workplace help you to find balance and relieve some of the stress. Using a good coach with whom you can build a strong relationship with can provide an independent viewpoint. A relationship that can be honest and without bias, because they are working to help you create the outcomes you are searching for, rather than having their own agenda.
Most change, innovation and progress come as a result of human relationships. Yes, hard work is important, as is knowledge and skills but as organizations increase in size and complexity we need teams of people to rely on and interact with. We must trust them to perform and to understand our vision and work effectively with us. The relationship we have with each individual is key to this. In years of working as a psychologist and a coach, I know that insight into how we act and behave is essential to our development but I also understand that without a strong trusting relationship people don’t gain insights. Instead they put up defenses, deny the negative aspects of themselves because to admit those things to someone we don’t trust is to make ourselves vulnerable, in many situations we deny it even to ourselves. So, the trusting relationship is key to change.
Strategies to Enhance Trust
Be reliable and consistent
Uphold your agreements. The basis of trust is that people can rely on you to do what you said, but also that you will act in a consistent manner. This involves a degree of self-management, understanding your own reactions to events and managing your behavior so that people know what to expect from you. If your behavior is inconsistent people become wary and withdraw and honest communication will be very difficult to come by.
It seems simple but it requires focus. Most of us are already thinking of our response, waiting for our turn to speak instead of listening fully and deeply. It means putting aside both external and internal distractions and focusing on the present conversation. To stop your own internal thoughts to do this and really hear what someone is saying is a valuable skill that not many possess but will truly build understanding and trust.
Be appreciative of others
It is often easy to focus on weaknesses or mistakes and overlook the positives. Imagine spending time with a 2-year-old, do you pay attention and correct the behaviors you wish to change more or the good behaviors that you want to continue. Watch most parents in a restaurant and the focus is almost exclusively on “stop this”, “don’t do that” and I’m sure most of appreciate the impact this has. So acknowledge what others do well, recognize their strengths. Positive feedback creates enthusiasm and fosters creativity and innovation so don’t undervalue the impact it can have.
Don’t be afraid of giving negative feedback
Often corrective feedback is required, mistakes should be highlighted and learnt from. Finding a way to do this in an open and constructive manner that does not leave someone feeling criticized or undervalued is essential. Again, it enhances the trust in a relationship because, done well it brings honesty into the relationship, but also indicates your willingness to support development.
If you want to know how you come across to people or how they think about a situation the simplest way is to ask. Whatever the relationship you have now this is a very direct way to initiate more openness and trust. Just beware the power dynamics at play and be prepared to listen and accept what the other says before you begin.
Although much of this sounds basic it can be difficult to put into practice. Without insight into your own characteristics and the impact you have on others it is difficult to transform relationships and move your leadership skills forwards effectively. If it feels like any of these strategies might be difficult or you have reasons that they won’t work for you or in your company then it might be worth exploring your own beliefs and assumptions about why. As humans, we have a unique ability to self-sabotage and to get in the way of our own potential. By exploring the reasons behind this you can unlock this potential and overcome personal limitations.
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