A Crisis of Trust

by Linda Dunkel

Have you seen the 1970s film “The Lion in Winter?” At its heart, the classic movie (available on Netflix, and highly recommended) is a story of lost trust. After years of marriage and nine children, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has lost his trust in Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn). This loss is prompted by a very reasonable motive: Eleanor has sided with their children in armed revolt against Henry. In response to this crisis of trust, the king locks up Eleanor in a variety of castles for almost 15 years, effectively taking her “out of the game” and keeping an eye on her every move.

We all face crises of trust, and here in the 21st century, trust is as big an issue as ever; but we can’t just lock people up when we’ve lost trust in them. So, what’s the answer? At IA, we recently completed our third year of research on trust in the workplace and have some very interesting facts to reveal, which you can find by reading the document, "Building Trust in Business." We know that people trust others based on their past experience with that person. 

What Creates Trust?

In our study, 71 percent of respondents indicated that they trust others based on the consistency, predictability, and quality of their work, and believe that trust is based on evidence of past accomplishments and demonstrated capability. These individuals trust others because they have passed the “test.”  We also learned that people assess the skills they know others have, and place their trust in those they view as able to execute the actions they are trusted to perform. So, how do we handle situations where these conditions don’t exist? In other words, what do we do when we haven’t had enough experience with an individual — or don’t judge him or her to be capable — and yet, we must work together to deliver a result?  How do we approach a work situation where we believe someone has violated our trust?

 At Interaction Associates, we’ve spent over 40 years developing tools for leaders and team members to employ in just these situations — so that walls can become doors and breakthroughs can happen. And they can happen in ways that do not call for the figurative locking up (or freezing out) of others. Clearly, we must use a few key tools to help create authentic conversations with another person, so that the “undiscussable” can, in fact, be discussed. We need something we call “collaborative acumen.” That’s the interpersonal skill set required to set the stage for the difficult conversation, listen in a deep way to the other person, dialogue without defensiveness, build agreements for positive movement, and give and receive feedback. We need to be able to speak our truth by sharing our perceptions without judgment, and really coming at the situation with a collaborative attitude and desire to work together. We need to be able to manage ourselves in this endeavor so that we generate trust, and truly work to create the container of community with another human being. We teach leaders and others how to have just these kinds of conversations, in the context of a safe and transparent environment. 

Try Listening

Especially important are the skills of inquiry which help us all have conversations that lead to results, process, and relationship satisfaction. Learning to deeply listen just doesn’t come naturally to all of us; it requires a good toolkit, which includes the ability to “bracket” our inner chatter [see Figure 1 below], so that we can clear our minds to inquire and to accept what we hear. It also requires us to ask questions with true curiosity of one another, and to learn to probe more deeply for both the meaning as well as the “music between the notes” of the words that are actually spoken, so that we can understand the emotion that is behind the words. By learning the skills of listening, we can all get to the first stage of understanding so that we can then begin to build shared meaning, and ultimately, some agreements to guide our actions.

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                                         Bracketing (Figure 1)

As leaders and collaborative team members in the workplace, where we are all accountable for the highest quality of success achievable, we have the responsibility to address and establish or re-establish trust. Otherwise, the figurative prisons we create limit our ability to achieve success, and make work much harder than it needs to be. To achieve a great work environment -- where we all achieve success in the results, process, and relationship dimensions -- we must face issues of trust and to come at them directly and with skill. 

Henry II wasted one of his best resources when he locked up Eleanor. She was a brilliant strategist and tactician, and had the people skills he generally lacked. His legacy and the history of Europe might have been remarkably different had the two of them figured out another way to handle their own lack of trust, and subsequent actions. Of course, had that happened, we would have missed one of the best movies of all time!

Tags : leadership. leadership development women leaders collaborative