For whatever reason over the last few weeks I’ve been asked in several different ways how to build (or rebuild) trust. I’ll share an oversimplification here and recommend you look at my book reviews of Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace and Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships and Life, if you’re interested in more details, techniques, or background.
Building or rebuilding trust is as simple as: making commitments, renegotiating commitments, and meeting commitments. Whether you’re in an organization or are working one-on-one this seems too simple to be true – however, sometimes the solution isn’t as large as the problem.
Making a commitment may seem like something that you do every day – however, if you’re like most folks you don’t really make commitments daily. Most folks make agreements daily but rarely do you find someone who makes commitments. What’s the difference? Well, it’s indifference. If you have any level of indifference about whether you’ll be able to actually do the thing you’re making an agreement but not a commitment. Commitment means committed.
I don’t mean the sort of “I’ll do it or die trying” level of commitment is required for everything you do but when you’re building or rebuilding trust even small things can be big. You want to ensure that you’re meeting every commitment so that you develop a pattern of the other person expecting you’ll meet your commitments. (Sounds a bit like trust doesn’t it?)
One key point in terms of making commitments is the level of specificity that you use. The problem is sometimes that we’re not specific enough about our commitments so we have one idea of what we’re committing to and someone else has a different interpretation. All the time we have folks commit to get something done by Tuesday. However, they may be thinking end of day – where we’re expecting first thing in the morning. For even more clarity we might define end of day – what time? 5PM? 6PM? 11:59PM? What timezone? In our multi-location business world sometimes even the timezone can trip us up.
Any commitment you make, you should fully expect to meet.
This is an odd placement. You would think that the thing you would want to do most when it comes to commitments is meeting them and yet that’s our third item not our second, why? In short, renegotiation can be a positive thing – even more than meeting a commitment – but only if it’s handled before the time to meet the commitment has passed – and only if done in the right spirit.
It’s possible to renegotiate because of truly exceptional circumstances (a death in the family) or truly trivial circumstances (I wanted to watch a TV show.) The greater level of respect that you show the other person through what you renegotiate for, the quicker you’ll build trust.
Clearly you want to minimize the number of times that you have to renegotiate in the first place, however, the key is to renegotiate openly and that you do it before you’ve missed the commitment in the first place – if you can. If you happen to miss your commitment and don’t renegotiate first, don’t give up. You should still renegotiate the commitment, just know that you’ve lost some ground and what you’re doing with the renegotiation is trying to not lose more.
Meeting a commitment has the same level of apparent simplicity as making a commitment and the same level of possibility for misunderstanding. Certainly you should meet your own standards when meeting a commitment – you shouldn’t try to “pull one over” on yourself and say it was “good enough.” That is a slippery slope and one that no one ever navigates for long. However, more important is that you get the party (or organization) to whom you made the commitment to positively acknowledge that you’ve met the commitment.
For instance, on occasion I’ve presented to a group where we made a list of things to cover in the presentation on the board. During the presentation as I believe I covered a topic I went to cross the item off the list – and as I did I asked the person that raised it to acknowledge that I had met their expectations – or they told me what I didn’t meet and I tried to work on it. In short we renegotiated because their expectation couldn’t be met – or I delivered the missing material. Notice here I’m not perfect in setting expectations or communicating my commitments either – I use renegotiation to help me get more clarity when necessary.
Wrap Up – Expectations and Perfection
Really when you’re building trust you’re trying to create the expectation that you’ll do something. You’re trying to build an expectation that your word, your commitment means something. Trust is really that expectation. It’s someone else accepting an expectation as more or less a fact.
I need to end that you won’t be perfect in meeting your commitments, no one is. What you want to do is be as close to perfect as you can be. The best way to do that is to make and meet small commitments and gradually expand them larger and larger. If you’re an alcoholic don’t make the commitment to never drink again – ever. Make the commitment to not drink tomorrow. After a while you may expand and commit to not drinking for a week. 12 step programs, of which Alcoholics Anonymous is the creator, recommend one day at a time. It’s good advice. Commit to things that are so close that you know you can meet them.