The issue of trust comes up regularly in my coaching practice. All of my clients are managing complicated relationships with colleagues, co-founders, senior execs, board members, and other key players who have the potential to add significant value if things go well and to do serious damage if things go poorly.
Trust is a critical factor in these relationships. A baseline level of trust is necessary before we even enter into such a relationship with someone, but trust is a highly dynamic quality: What takes years to establish can be wiped out in seconds. So when our level of trust with someone is uncertain or yet to be fully established, it's important to clarify the issue by asking these two questions:
1) Do I trust their intentions?
2) Do I trust their judgment?
The answers can help us decide how to proceed. When we trust someone's intentions but doubt their judgment, it's usually easier. We can provide clearer guidance, offer more support, and strive to avoid miscommunication, while also determining whether their lack of judgment is a fatal flaw, a fixable problem, or an illusion based on inaccurate data.
When we trust someone's judgment but doubt their intentions, it's usually harder. We can limit our engagement with them and minimize our exposure to risk, while also determining whether their bad intentions are truly malevolent, merely opportunistic, or just a misunderstanding.
(When we doubt their intentions and their judgment, it may be time to end the relationship and move on.)
These questions are also worth considering when we're seeking to establish trust with someone (instead of assessing whether or not we trust them.) The work of Harvard's Amy Cuddy is relevant here--in Connect, Then Lead, she and her colleagues Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger write:
When we judge others--especially our leaders--we look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence). Although there is some disagreement about the proper labels for the traits, researchers agree that they are the two primary dimensions of social judgment.
Why are these traits so important? Because they answer two critical questions: "What are this person's intentions toward me?" and "Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions?"
So when our trustworthiness is being assessed, we find ourselves on the receiving end of the questions above:
1) Do they trust my intentions?
2) Do they trust my judgment?
And a problem noted by Cuddy is that most leaders seek to establish their competence first (demonstrating trustworthy judgment) rather than establishing their warmth first (demonstrating trustworthy intentions):
A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas. Even a few small nonverbal signals—a nod, a smile, an open gesture—can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.
I'm reminded of interactions I had with several of my MBA students at Stanford this past Quarter. I was teaching Interpersonal Dynamics (aka Touchy Feely), our most popular elective, for the first time, and I very much wanted my students to have a good experience, in part because the course was so meaningful for me when I took it as a student in 1999. And while the course ended well, and I'm very happy with the feedback I got, I know that several students felt a lack of trust with me early on. In most cases I was able to overcome that gap--but not in all--and to an extent I see this as a function of choices I made that emphasized my competence and judgment as an instructor, rather than my warmth and good intentions as a person. I've learned this lesson before in other leadership and teaching roles, but what I missed this time around was the impact of being such a differentiated authority figure with people who are already stressed and anxious. The greater the emotional distance imposed by our role and the setting, the harder we have to work at the outset to convey our warmth and good intentions (and yet it always pays off.)
In 2006, shortly after launching my executive coaching practice, I had a great conversation with a fellow Stanford GSB alum named Clinton Moloney, who shared with me this definition of trust:
Trust = Motive + Reliability + Competence
This formula obviously informs my thoughts above--I prefer "intentions" to "motive," and "judgment" to "competence," but the concepts are close parallels. It's worth nothing that Clinton didn't claim to be the originator of the formula above--I simply heard it from him first. At the time of that post, the ever-thoughtful Charles Green shared some background on the formula's history and its antecedents.
Photo by Dean Hochman. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.