Mark Pearl

I’ve got 3 children, all still very young. My middle child, Juliet who is 5, has a game she loves to play with me. The game involves her climbing up the side of our couch (which is quite high up compared to her size) and launching herself into my arms. Normally when we play this game I make a point of standing close by. There have been a few occasions where I have been quite far away. This doesn’t phase her, she launches herself at me without hesitation regardless of the distance. She has absolute trust in me.

I know that at some point she is going to reach the age where she will no longer do this. The trust she has in me will no longer be blind.

As adults, we live in risk-aware and risk-adverse. There is a culture of hyper-caution. Trust is not blind.

Why do we need trust?

I’ve seen the impact from the lack of trust at many different levels,

  • Team members not being able to work with each other because they don’t trust each other
  • Teams not being able to work with other teams because of a lack of trust
  • People leaving organisations because they don’t trust their leaders
  • People being pushed out of organisations because their leaders don’t trust them

Trust is an important element in almost all interactions we have with others. In the software industry specifically, trust is often the differentiator on performance. High performing teams have high trust, low performing teams have low trust.

What exactly is trust?

For many years I’ve heard people throw the word “trust” around but not be able to explain exactly what they mean. To be frank, I’ve struggled to explain it myself. Something so essential, yet so hard to verbalise. This inability to verbalise it led me on a quest to find a definition or formula for trust.

Formula 1

The first formula I came across was

trust = warmth + competency.

To explain the terms, warmth in this context is the connection you feel with the person. How friendly that person is to you, do they care about you. Competency is how skilled they are at doing their job.

I once worked with a senior manager who I believe was extremely competent at his job yet never made an effort to connect. He was dead cold. There were a few situations where I had information/feedback that was beneficial to share that would require a level of vulnerability on my side to share (i.e. there could be a negative impact on my career progression in the company if he took it negatively). I was never comfortable sharing it with him. I just didn’t trust him.

On the other side, the warmth I have with my children is high but they are at not competent at many things. For example, they don’t know numbers, I do not trust them to do my tax return.

While the “warmth + competency” formula is useful, it is too simplistic.

There are two elements I’ve experienced that have caused a lack of trust

Reliability: There are people that are extremely warm and competent that I do not trust. They are the people that are not reliable. An example of reliability impacting trust is my extended family. Well, in a very specific aspect…them being on time to family gatherings! Let me explain, there is warmth - we care about each other. They are competent - they know how to drive and get from a to b and know how to tell time. Are they ever on time, almost never. Do I trust them when they say they will be at our place by midday. Not a chance.

Self-orientation: There are people that are extremely warm, competent and reliable that I do not trust. They are the people that have a high self orientation. An example most can relate to is the stereotypical Realtor. They are friendly, they are competent (they know way more about property law than I know), they are reliable (always on time, always send you the paperwork) yet do I trust them? Not a chance. What’s missing? Self-orientation. They are incentivised in such a way that you are never quite sure if they are putting their personal interests of getting a sales commission over your own interests of getting a good deal for a property.

So, with these two dimensions added I can introduce the second formula for trust I’ve encountered.

Formula 2

trust = (warmth + competency + reliability) / self-orientation

Competency = I can trust what they saw about…
Reliability - I can trust them to…
Warmth - I feel comfortable discussing this…
Self-orientation - Them putting their interests ahead of your own…

This second formula maps well to trust. However there are a still a blind spot. You can be competent at what you do, reliable in how you do it, show warmth to those around you, have a low self-orientation and still not be trusted because you were not able to produce the results.

Results matter.

Formula 3

This presents my final formula,

trust = (warmth + competency + reliability + results) / self-orientation

Some people struggle with results forming a part of trust. Sometimes results are out of your control. This means that sometimes you may be in a low trust situation and not be able to do anything about it.

Because there is an element of luck or “the elements” to producing results usually people give some slack around it. If however you are consistently not producing results you are not going to have trust.

How do you repair trust?

How do you repair trust? Repairing trust starts with identifying where it has broken down and addressing that.

Results often is the easiest to fix, people typically only remember you via your last results.

Reliability is also easier to fix. Recognising that in the past you have not been reliable and that you intend to change this going forward and then actually demonstrating it can lead to a quick turn around.

Warmth is something you can work at that takes a little bit of time. I suggest getting input from others on how you can improve connecting and then putting that into practice. Also, you need to demonstrate consistency. When you attempt to establish warmth it needs to come across as genuine for an an extended period of time.

The hardest element to repair is self-orientation. Once people believe you have a high level of self-orientation, while not impossible, it is hard to convince them otherwise.

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