You may be the most unquestioning, benevolent leader around but people may not trust you.
I was teaching a coaching class to a group of leaders in a bank. I had to practically bribe someone to volunteer for a demonstration. Even then, I didn’t feel as if the man was sharing a problem he really needed help with.
I mentioned my difficulties in leading classroom demonstrations to my client. She said most people in her organization did not trust their peers. They felt others will do anything they can to get ahead, even betray trust. So they are reluctant to let anyone know they are having problems.
I began asking about levels of trust in both the company and country cultures before I taught classes. I found a clear link in the number of people willing to volunteer to how well people trusted each other in the room.
So what does this mean to you as a leader?
For people to learn, they have to be willing to talk about the problems they face. Ideally, they should be willing to discuss different ways of seeing their situations in order to identify solutions. This conversation requires they trust you.
There is both a social norm and company cultural norm that affects the level of trust in spite of what you do. You have to be aware of these elements and what triggers distrust so you can increase the level of safety people need to feel before they will come to you with problems.
To create the sense of safety needed for people to be open to you, there are three things you should be aware and in control of: 1) the current level of trust, 2) your emotional-based intention, and 3) the regard you hold for the person or group.
1) The current level of trust
Don’t expect a level of trust; go in ready to read the levels no matter what you think you already know. Even if the level of social trust in your country, state, or company is high, personal or group trust might be low. A recent event could have impacted the trust people feel in their lives, with their team, or with you. Don’t forget that some people don’t trust leaders no matter what!
You need to move your attention into the present moment so you can “read” how safe someone feels. If you aren’t “here now,” you will not sense a person’s fear until they have already retreated.
If you are calm, comfortable and present to the other person, you are in a position to recognize the emotions driving their choices. You will notice when they hesitate or withdraw. You will see opportunities to endorse their capabilities and encourage exploration.
You may also notice how you react to their resistance. You may notice your impatience or urge to fill in the silence. Relax, allowing time for the person to relax as well. Choose to feel compassion before you respond.
Find a routine that works for you to quickly relax your body and mind. While in conversation, notice if any part of your body tenses up or your brain has critical thoughts. Release the tension. Clear your mind. Breathe into your belly.
When you are fully present, you are better able to maintain composure if tensions rise. Then you can appropriately adapt your approach without giving up on your intention.
2) Your emotional-based intention
To build trust, the person must “feel” your intentions are in their best interest throughout the conversation and beyond. Your needs and emotions will impact the conversation even if you have been trained to put on a poker face. As soon as you shift your attention to wanting them to learn or change for your satisfaction instead of theirs, trust is impaired if not lost. Their brains shut down instead of open up.
Even if a broader goal will be met, the conversation must have an emotional intention focused on them, not you. This intention will help to open the person to the vulnerability they may feel when they begin to talk about their issues. They have to feel that the outcome will help them before they will help you.
3) The regard you hold for the person or group
An open conversation requires a feeling of mutual respect. It is often hard to reveal flaws to someone who looks down on you. Even if you disagree with their perspective, honor them anyway, knowing they are doing their best to survive and succeed with what they know. Hopefully, you can help them realize what else they can know.
Trust may be more difficult to earn with some people than others. Don’t be impatient. Be aware of and calm your own anxiety. Then shift your focus to how delighted you are to have the opportunity to help someone move forward in this chaotic, sometimes scary world. Being a leader is privilege to be grateful for. Showing people you are honored to serve them is the greatest trust builder of all.