Trust – Easy to Say, Hard to Do

In Client Engagement

By Maura Fay Learning

The question of what makes a great leader is one that has challenged smart minds and sold many great books over the past few decades with the growth in popularity of works by Collins, Senge, Welch, Ury, Drucker, etc. With the recognition that the ‘softer’ behavioural skills are as critical to leadership as the technical skills, we have started to see a growing trend toward the formalised development skills associated with building engagement, relationship development and building a duty of emotional care to our employees.

With that often comes some broad statements about the need to build trust but herein lies a challenge. In the complex environment of the workplace trust is a very tenuous commodity, something very difficult to build and very easily lost. It would probably be fair to say that when many of us are confronted with a directive like, ‘build trust’, a big flashing question mark forms in our brain quickly followed by a ‘yeah… but how?’

Maister, Green and Galford, in their text, The Trusted Advisor, (The Free Press, 2000) make a strong attempt at defining the elements of trust in an equation:

Trust = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy


The beauty of this definition is that it has as much relevance to any leadership role as it does to consulting and sales (upon which this work is based).

Credibility is about how credible and knowledgeable you appear and how you demonstrate business acumen or value-add to your people through the quality of your conversation and approach; things like relevance and maintaining currency. Remember, it’s not just what you know or say, it’s also in the behaviour (voice/tone, action) that you demonstrate whilst saying it.

Reliability relates to how consistently you deliver on promises, your timeliness, quality of approach and the personal accountability you take. This is also about not becoming complacent as ‘reliability’ is both a quick way to win points and probably the quickest way to lose them, too.

Intimacy links to the amount of honesty in a relationship and the degree to which individuals are mindful of the emotional needs and concerns of each other. What I love about this word is that it raises a very necessary and important conversation about the need to build a quality relationship on an emotional level with other individuals. The ‘how’ of professional intimacy revolves around having the courage to enquire beyond the presenting problem (or rational explanation of an issue) to the underlying issue (the emotional response or reaction to the issue). What this looks and sounds like can be questions like:

‘…and how does that impact you?’

‘…how are people reacting to this?’

‘…what does this mean for you?’

…and if you’re really game, the good ol’ chestnut, ‘How does that affect you personally?’. Questions like ‘What else is going on for you?’ can also open up the conversation to allow you both to step further into a relationship.

So why don’t we do this more often? Stepping into a relationship with another requires a level of self-disclosure. Think about how you’ve developed friendships in the past. Generally, there’s been a watershed conversation or event often involving joint honesty and disclosure (and implicitly some degree of risk) that has significantly progressed the relationship. Also, with an increased level of intimacy comes equally increased levels of responsibility… you need to be careful about confidentiality. It probably comes with an expectation of increased effort, time, opportunities for connection, expected support and/or alliance.

What many people, particularly those who still hold the belief that emotions are left at home, don’t yet realise is the degree to which professional intimacy can be the difference between a profitably relationship and one that continues to harbour distrust or tension.

Self-Orientation or Self-Interest is a tricky one for leaders particularly where there may already exist a level of cynicism or suspicion about the motives, intentions or agenda that sit behind an approach or conversation. Let’s be honest, much of the time, you will have your own objectives for building relationships and focusing increased attention on an individual and this is completely valid.

A level of transparency around this objective can create relief and clarity for the other party. If the reason for a performance conversation has been stated, then your objective is clear and everything else you do can be focused on tailoring the conversation to the employee’s best interest.

This can include presenting information or solutions directly to their pain points using language they relate to, addressing their emotional concerns by explaining the likely impact on them, outlining risks and removing surprises, and ensuring their needs are met in a way most palatable for them (not you). In short, it’s about keeping people front of mind and ‘in-focus’. Remind yourself a couple of times in the conversation that, ‘it’s not about you!’

So next time you’re in a conversation where increased levels of trust could benefit you in terms of better communication, efficiency, influence or outcomes, walk out of the meeting and self-assess yourself against Maister’s Trust Equation:

  • How much credibility do I have with this person?
  • What value did I provide to them in this conversation?
  • Did I deliver on my promises and live up to expectations?
  • How well did I reassure or inquire into their emotional needs?

To what degree did I focus on them over myself?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *