Imagine it’s the day of your annual performance review. You’re sitting down with your leader to talk about what’s happened, and what’s next.
Your technical skills are awesome. Of course they are—you focus on excellence every single day. But your communication skills—the long-mislabeled “soft skills”—you’re told they could use some work.
Honestly, you knew this, right? You just hoped that because of your technical prowess, no one would notice—or care. Not anymore.
So where do you start? After all, there are a thousand different strategies, courses and tools to choose from to develop better communication skills. But the uncomfortable truth is that none of those interventions work if you don’t start first by building trust.
Why Focus on Trust?
For the past 20 years, global marketing firm Edelman has researched levels of trust around the world through its extensive Trust Barometer study.1 In 2017, its findings were summarized as “Trust in Crisis.”
That’s no surprise to all of us living in a world of fake news, data breaches and ethical breakdowns. But it’s a shock when we realize that the gap in trust applies to us. In fact, in the Edelman research, only 52 percent of respondents said they trust businesses to do the right things, and only 37 percent believed CEOs—once key voices of authority—were credible.
On the flip side, CEOs aren’t blind to this struggle. In PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC’s) 2017 survey of more than 1,300 executives, 69 percent of CEOs said it’s harder for businesses to sustain trust in the digital age when errors are amplified immediately, and cynicism is the default standard of judgment for internal and external stakeholders.2
This is the water you’re swimming in as you work to improve your communication and improve your performance. In some companies, it’s the ocean they’re drowning in without a lifeguard in sight. But don’t dismay. Because the world’s collective levels of trust are in the dumpster, the opportunity for you to build it is huge.
As human beings, it’s in our DNA that we want to trust somebody. Why shouldn’t it be you? If you’re ready to build more trust, we’re ready for you. But first, you need to face the four uncomfortable truths about this important and scarce trait.
UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH #1
Asking For Trust Doesn’t Gain Trust
Let’s go back to that annual performance review. Perhaps you want to know what’s next—how to gain the promotion, bigger project or manager post. And instead of outlining a specific step-by-step plan, your manager says something like: “It’ll happen. Just trust me.” Would you?
In fact, when anyone today tells you “just trust me,” do you? When I ask this question in large rooms of people, about a third say they’d trust the person, but reluctantly. But two-thirds say no. No matter who is asking, trust is not a gift to be easily given. And yet, we get frustrated when we find that others don’t trust us, or need constant reassurance about our intentions, direction and thoughts.
What You Can Do: Don’t Ask, Just Give
The best way to combat this uncomfortable truth is not to ask for trust at all. Instead, you can choose to be a role model for giving trust, openly and often.
How do you do this? It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture, where you hand over the responsibility of your biggest client to the rookie on the team. That’s not trust—that might be a fiscal nightmare. Instead, you can give trust in little steps, every single day.
Research from University of Houston professor and bestselling author Brené Brown uncovered that trust is built in very small moments, such as remembering a name or following up with genuine interest on a personal situation. (“How’s your mom doing after her fall?”)
In my work with leaders and high-performing professionals, we often focus on creating more of these moments by adding trust-oriented comments into everyday conversations to make communication stronger.
- “You don’t need to report back to me on that meeting unless there’s something where you need some help. I know you’ve got it.”
- “I’m evaluating which direction to take on XYZ project. Could I have your opinion?”
- “I see you at the ABC meetings, but I don’t know much else about you and your work. I’d like to change that. Could we meet for lunch sometime?”
What those leaders find is that by consciously using trust-building messages, they plant seeds that communicate their decision to give trust unconditionally.
Do they get let down? Sometimes. But do they begin to earn trust back? Always.
UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH #2
Failing Is Essential
When someone in your circle makes a mistake, are they allowed to own it, apologize for it and move on? Or are they consistently reminded of the error, living in fear of when the hammer will fall all over again, whether it be in their next performance review or behind closed doors when they’re passed over for the next opportunity?
And how often do you openly acknowledge your own mistakes, shortcomings and failures? Gulp. Knowing we’re safe to fail is an essential boundary of trust. But our cultures of fear and avoidance can make fail a bad four-letter word.
What You Can Do: Show Your Work—Especially Your Mistakes
In school, we often got extra credit for showing our work—making it clear what path we took to get to the answer, even if the answer was wrong.
It works the same today. The people around you need to see your work. How did you get to where you are? Where did you trip and fall? How did you pick yourself back up again?
Don’t discount telling personal stories as a waste of time. They often deepen the connection and quality of communication between you and your clients and team, especially when they clarify how you think, what assumptions you make, and how you’ve changed those assumptions or actions over time to get to better outcomes.
- “This reminds me of the time I …”
- “I don’t talk about this a lot, but there was a situation like this where I …”
- “Have I told you about the time I screwed up on something similar to this? My big mistake was …”
If you’re struggling to connect with a colleague or client, a conversation about your biggest failure is a great way to open up new insights and pathways that lead to trust.
UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH #3
Work Is Always Personal, Get Over It
In the movie The Godfather, Michael Corleone explains why shooting a corrupt cop will be OK. He says, “It’s not personal—it’s just business.” Maybe you’ve used that line, too. And maybe you believe it. But if you’d like to build trust, please stop.
What You Can Do: Stay Human
Neuroscientist Paul J. Zak has spent a decade researching the question, “Why do people trust each other in the first place?” His work involves sampling one thing all humans have in common: blood.
Specifically, Zak’s team measures levels of oxytocin, what some call the “happy hormone.” He’s sampled people inside companies as well as indigenous tribes in Papua New Guinea, and he found that no matter what the surroundings, the relationship between oxytocin and trust is universal.3
According to Zak’s research, when someone shows you trust, a feel-good jolt of oxytocin surges through your brain and triggers you to offer trust back. This simple mechanism creates a perpetual trust-building cycle, which, Zak says, is the key to changing stubborn workplace patterns.
FOUR Strategies To Strengthen Your Trust-Worthy Communication
Know your values
Your values are the elements you believe are most important in the way you live and work. But if your values are just words on a wall, they’re worthless.
When asked, can you state your values out loud? When I ask this question of clients who are starting a leadership development program with me, about 90 percent of them aren’t sure. Once your personal values are clear, you can evaluate how often your actions and decisions support those values. When the choices we make are out of sync with our values, we immediately lose trust.
Tell your failure stories
You know you’re not perfect. We know you’re not perfect. Bridge the gap and don’t pretend.
A good failure story can change the direction of a business. Facebook famously had an intern named Ben who accidentally took down the site for 30 minutes while testing for bugs. He got hired, and Facebook still celebrates “BenTesting.”
Take a page from Silicon Valley and fail often and in public. The message that it’s safe to be imperfect accelerates trust.
Don’t hide behind your computer or smartphone. As more of our work is handled by remote teams, it’s easier than ever to default to over-efficient emails, texts and instant messages.
The truth is that visibility equals viability. Person-to-person contact is still the gold standard for building trust, and voice-to-voice is a close second. Show up, be seen and heard, and start two-way conversations that feel human and real.
Too often we abandon our core messages because we get tired of hearing the same thing over and over. We assume others are bored because we’re bored of ourselves.
But to your customers, clients and colleagues, repetition creates a feeling of “ah, yes, I’ve heard this before, and so I can trust it.” When we switch messages constantly—such as changing our priorities or talking differently about our goals—we generate more uncertainty and demolish trust in our words.
Do the work to get clear on what you’re all about as a professional, leader and colleague. Don’t get tempted by the latest cool idea, whim or fear. When you are consistently you, trust will always be yours.
So our efforts to build relationships aren’t a fluffy waste of time: They’re chemically proven to make a difference.
What’s the easiest way to start? I asked my clients for their suggestions:
- Take time for lunch (and extra points if you invite someone to join you).
- Share what’s going well and invite others to share their “brag” stories.
- Create a click-free zone when you’re limiting use of your digital devices.4
- When you ask, “How are you?”pay attention to the answer and really respond.
Sounds simple, right? But how often are you doing it?
As technology has allowed us to get further and further from each other, we need to intentionally work to stay closer to ensure we’re communicating effectively. As Brown says in her 2017 book, Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up.”5
UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH #4
The Person You Must Learn To Trust Again Is Yourself
Even the most confident person harbors a few cells of impostor syndrome inside. Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you’re a fraud, a fake or a phony—that you’re not as great as everyone thinks you are.
Of course, we know this is true. Wait—what? Yes. You will always know more about your lumps and bumps than anyone in the outside world ever will. But you should never let it hold you back. Because how can we trust you when you don’t trust yourself?
What You Can Do: Be Clear About You
PwC global chairman Bob Moritz said, “How we lead needs to be reassessed as much as what we lead.” So, how do you lead—even if the word “leader” isn’t part of your role? Are you clear about who you are and what you want, right now?
To help you create clarity, ask yourself:
- Do I understand my strengths and know how to use them in the best ways possible?
- Do I always do what I say I’ll do? If I don’t, what’s getting in the way?
- Does my schedule reflect my values and priorities? Do I know what they are—and am I honest with myself about what’s really a priority for me and what’s just someone else’s fire drill?
When you take a step back and get clear about who you are and who you want to be, it’s easier to start trusting your own ideas, actions and big decisions you need to make in your work and life.
If you need to build your communication skills—whether based on formal feedback from your manager during your annual review, informal feedback during a conversation or just your own assessment when you evaluate your results—don’t immediately dive into programs and tools.
First, do the work to build trust by strengthening your communication—one person at a time, one day at a time. Your work will have a ripple effect in your organization. As proof, neuroscientist Zak found that compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report:6
- 74 percent less stress
- 106 percent more energy at work
- 50 percent higher productivity
- 13 percent fewer sick days
- 76 percent more engagement
- 40 percent less burnout
What difference would those results make in your company, community and career? It’s time to go find out.
- 1. “2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.” 2017. Edelman. https://www.edelman.com/trust2017/. ↩
- 2. PricewaterhouseCoopers. 2017. “20th CEO Survey—PwC Global.” PwC. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/ceo-agenda/ceosurvey/report-archive.html. ↩
- 3. Zak, Paul J. 2016. “The Neuroscience of Trust.” Harvard Business Review. December 19. https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust. ↩
- 4. Eikenberg, Darcy. 2017. “How to Bring Your Superpowers to Work—Tip #3: Click Less to Connect More.” Red Cape Revolution. November 15. https://redcaperevolution.com/click-less-tip/. ↩
- 5. Brown, Brené. 2017. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House. ↩
- 6. Supra note 3. ↩