Training Ourselves to Trust

Most people believe that trust is something people have to earn, and that such trust is granted consciously. This article challenges part of that notion. What if the reality is that we trust someone because they’ve done things that our subconscious is willing to consider trustworthy?

Why Do We Care About Trust?
Trust makes business relationships more workable because of two things. First, it drives productivity. Let’s take the case of an assistant. If we delegate responsibility to him, and we trust him, there is no need to follow up on the details. We know that he will carry out what we’ve asked of him, so it makes our interactions much more efficient. If we don’t trust someone we’ve hired, the tasks we’ve assigned to him will keep popping up in our heads, and we’ll waste time fretting that maybe he didn’t do what we asked. If our subconscious doesn’t trust him, we’ll micromanage the assistant to the point of mutual frustration. If our subconscious does trust him, we can simply assign a task and consider it done. Training ourselves to trust a team member can have dramatic results and, for me, it has been the leading factor in cultivating great staff. I believe I have such good team members because I trust them to a great degree.

Second, trust makes things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. If we trust our team members to do their jobs well, we can increase our own effectiveness and scope because we are free to concentrate on our areas of expertise. We can’t be the best at everything, so we are much more efficient when we can take advantage of other people’s skills while utilizing our own.

Trust creates powerful relationships and, in turn, makes us more powerful individuals. The more trust we can introduce to our relationships, the greater our potential.

How Do We Introduce Trust?
While it’s true that we need to earn each other’s trust by doing certain things, this seems to happen at the subconscious level. We can choose to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but we can’t choose to trust him. This flies in the face of what we’ve been trained to think, that people have to repeatedly do things to prove themselves, and then we consciously accept that they’ve proven themselves and make the decision to trust them.

If you think about it, isn’t it more plausible that we actually receive and evaluate the proof of someone’s trustworthiness at the subconscious level first, using our innate power of instinct? People may say that they trust everyone until they find out they’re not trustworthy. They operate under the idea that they actually choose to trust, but they don’t. There’s a limit. If you doubt this, give all your money to a stranger and trust him to give it back to you tomorrow. How many people would choose to do that?

When we trust, it’s not a decision, and it’s below the conscious level.

If we accept that a person subconsciously grants trust because his brain recognizes that another person is exhibiting a pattern of trustworthiness, we can use this knowledge to start building a great relationship as soon as we hire someone new. We can establish patterns of behavior right at the outset to get our subconscious to trust him, just as we hired that person because we believed we might be able to trust him…eventually.

How We Train Ourselves to Trust
We all want to have wonderful working relationships that make our days go smoother and promote productivity and camaraderie. Yet, a lot of people complain about their team members. We may think that this stems from hiring the wrong people, but perhaps it’s the training process itself that blocks the way to better partnerships. I believe that the way we train ourselves to trust our team members is as important to getting the work done as explaining how to do it. Because if we don’t trust the people who work for us, we can’t be very powerful executives.

For example, I get a lot of compliments about my assistants. Colleagues always tell me that they can’t find competent, eager staff to act as their “right hand,” while I always seem to find great people for this position. Clearly, certain types of people and personality types make better assistants, but there is no perfect person. When we find someone who seems to possess the right mix of traits and skills, we can still mess up the relationship if we don’t handle it the right way. What we want is to assign tasks and have them be completed efficiently. What they want, along with an appropriate paycheck, is to feel good about what they do and to have it be appreciated. Those wishes won’t be granted at the outset; they have to be earned through a series of positive interactions that assures both parties that their needs will be met consistently. We can’t get there without establishing trust and respect, which can only happen when we acknowledge our anxiety and relinquish our initial tendency toward over-involvement anyway.

When the relationship is new, both the executive and the assistant will feel apprehensive, wondering what to expect. We’re thinking, “Is he or she going to misunderstand what I say, mess up my system and cause me a lot of extra work?” He’s thinking, “Will this person be unclear with instructions and then blame me for not doing the job properly?” or “Is he going to be a jerk and make me feel like a lackey?” What is actually happening is that the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls the fight or flight reflex, is assaying the unfamiliar territory and determining whether the other inhabitant poses a threat—“Will it eat me, or will I eat it?” Only when the subconscious feels comfortable and relaxes will the relationship be a cooperative, well-functioning one.

Another part of the brain, the frontal cortex, is the region that chose these people in the first place. During the interview, it recognized perhaps that this person had education, experience, a pleasant personality and came highly recommended. The frontal cortex chose the individual for a variety of reasons; the lesser brain did not. The amygdala is mistrustful and says, “Who is this person? Why is he here? What is he going to do for me?” Putting this creature’s worries to rest allows us to operate from a more elevated, productive state.

When we put this theory into practice as soon as we hire an individual for any position in the company, we’ll find that it’s just as important to train ourselves to trust the person as it is to train him how to do his job. In fact, we will probably find that training ourselves to trust him is even more valuable. The proof comes in the form of confidence as the team member grows into his position and takes on more responsibility. In a short period of time, as our apprehension turns to trust, we become convinced that our involvement with his daily tasks is more interference than assistance. Then we can back off, know that the work will be done competently and do what we do best. We find ourselves free to focus on the responsibilities that only we can address instead of monitoring our team members’ every move.

Trust-building Strategies
Our lesser brain will behave better when it sees proof that everything it thinks is keeping it alive will be safe. At work, it knows that success brings in money, which is how it gets fed. Any perceived threat to its livelihood will cause it to act out. We can use a few mental exercises to train the lower brain to trust. Let’s continue with the example of an assistant to show how it works.

  • Explain the trust-building process to the assistant and the reasons for implementing it. It will sound kind of funny and vulnerable at first, which in itself is a great ice-breaker, but the benefits will soon become clear as it works its magic.
  • Tell him that, at first, you’d like to see him write down every task you assign. When you dictate a letter and ask him to mail it, watch him write down “Mail the letter.” It may seem like a trivial thing, but it will give your amygdala a sense of control, even with an unfamiliar inhabitant in its domain.
  • Ask the assistant to confirm back to you as each task is completed. Frequent inbox messages informing you that work is getting done efficiently—“I mailed the letter”—will be just the physical proof that your lesser brain requires. Unfortunately, you just can’t tell your lesser brain to trust someone; it learns from experience, from what it observes. The initial reassurances cement the fact in our minds that our assistants can be relied upon to carry out our instructions.

Now we’ve implemented a program to train our lesser brains to trust so we can use our frontal cortex to its best ability. We let the lesser brain see that we gave a person a task, he wrote it down to prove that it won’t be forgotten, the task was done and we were informed of its completion. The lesser brain says, “Okay, chalk one up for the team member!” After we do that 100 times, and do it with more and more important things, our lesser brain will trust.

Once the team member is in the habit of carrying out assignments this way, we begin to recognize that we’re no longer questioning his competency. There are no mental pop-ups, no questions, just confidence that things are running smoothly behind the scenes. We’ll wonder if we should ask for a status update, but then one will come in anyway, and we’ll find that we’re actually annoyed by it. The lesser brain already assumed it was done, and now it feels like its time is being wasted when it could be out securing its safety in some other fashion…because it thinks it always needs to be doing that. At some point, the five now unnecessary emails coming in will give us a negative reaction. The amygdala says, “Stop with the extra emails! Why are you telling me you mailed a letter? Don’t do it anymore!” It shows up as sort of an anger response. Recognize that the lesser brain is getting mad, not you. When you detect that the lesser brain is aggravated by the notifications, you’ll know that you have built trust.

Now it’s time to thank the team member for his patience and follow-through, and inform him that you won’t be needing the confirmations anymore. You only want to be notified if something doesn’t get done within a reasonable amount of time. Also let him know that you’d still like a list of outstanding tasks to be maintained so that your amygdala can get a fix when it needs it. An organized roster of assignments to be done is a soothing balm for the lesser brain’s anxiety. For the amygdala, once trust is attained, it needs to be maintained. A sigh of relief from the team member ensues and—voila!—you’ve got another great person on staff.

The Benefits of Trusting
If you doubt the power of these tools, consider the alternative. Perhaps your past experiences are a good reference point. If we didn’t train ourselves to trust new hires, the first few assignments that we gave them would likely stick in our heads for a few days. It would pop up in our minds and we’d walk over to their desk and say, “Hey, I gave you these five tasks. Did you do this? Oh, yeah? How about this? And this?” It’s very counterproductive. When we don’t trust our team members, we’re less willing to give them tasks, so sometimes we do them ourselves, if we can. If we trust them, then we don’t have those pop-ups in our head when we’re on the way home, or at home, or in the shower, or driving into work, all those times when we have no control over what is or isn’t getting done. It’s actually more productive to work on our trust issues than it is to follow up. There’s no follow-up necessary if we build that trust, so we achieve much greater efficiency.

This trust-building exercise works the opposite way, too. It is a fantastic tool because the team member will see that there’s a “method to your madness,” and that ultimately he will reap the rewards from it. That’s trust. The neat thing is seeing how differently the team member acts after the exercise, because he knows that he’s earned your respect. The entire process only takes a few weeks, but, in the end, the great results will be obvious to everyone that person deals with, including clients, other team members and especially that pesky amygdala.

How Trust Breaks Down
Once we’ve built trust, we’ll want to make sure we don’t destroy it. In most relationships, things will happen that will make us doubt the other person. If such instances happen too often, trust will be destroyed, unless we reverse the process early enough to be able to stop it.

With team members, the breakdown process begins when someone is not committed to maintaining our trust. Maybe he’s committed to something in his personal life that eclipses his work life. Maybe he thinks his job involves too much work. Or maybe he just doesn’t care anymore. Whatever the reason, he is no longer making it a part of his job to keep our trust intact. If he hasn’t already decommitted from the organization, he’s on his way.

The team member’s apathy in this regard starts to show up in his not following through on things we expect him to do. Eventually, we’ll start to catch those slip-ups. Perhaps I ask an assistant to put so-and- so’s birthday on my calendar for next week so I can remember to get him a card. The birthday passes and only then does it occur to me that he didn’t do what I asked. I think, “Oh, there’s a problem,” but I put the mistake aside for the moment. A few more errors occur and, in very little time, a pattern of untrustworthiness is created. My percentage of confidence is quickly reduced. If we can communicate about this and find out what’s wrong, we can fix it together and rebuild the trust. If not, the relationship will break down until it ends.

The symptom of trust breaking down is following up on things or doing them yourself, when normally you would delegate those tasks and rely upon a team member to carry them out.

To keep trust from breaking down, maintaining it has to be at the top of our list. In the absence of trust, the relationship can’t flourish. We often take our relationships for granted, but we have to keep trust first and foremost in our priorities.

The Importance of Providing Preferences
It bears pointing out that we can’t blame someone for being “untrustworthy” if they fail because we’ve failed to give them specific instructions. Using the case of an assistant again, because that relationship is rife with examples requiring delegation, I can’t just say, “Book me a flight to Los Angeles” and then be disappointed in his performance if the arrangements displease me. I can only trust him to do a great job for me if I provide him with my preferences: my favorite airlines, where I like to sit in a plane, whether or not I want connections and so on. To the extent that I don’t care about something, it’s not a problem, but where I do care, it creates untrustworthiness if the assistant doesn’t consider my preferences. If I keep finding myself in an aisle seat when I’m miserable if I don’t sit by the window, I’m not going to be thrilled with my assistant just because he got me on a plane to the right city. It won’t be long before I’ll be making my own arrangements…and looking for a new assistant.

As another example, I may depend upon a manager to hire great team members. But I’ll only do this if I trust him to select candidates that I would choose. I expect that manager to be aware of and adhere to my preferences. If my organization is suddenly filled with people I find unsatisfactory, I’m not going to allow that manager to hire people anymore. Instead, I will begrudgingly give that task to someone else or do it myself. The truth is, we don’t merely want confirmation that our team members are doing their jobs; we want proof that they’re doing their jobs the way we prefer to have them done so we can confidently delegate.

If team members decisions often conflict with their manager’s preferences, they won’t be trusted.

Delegating tasks efficiently is such a huge part of a successful organization. We will have a hard time handing things over, though, if we don’t trust our team members. The rewards of building trust in the workplace are so great that it is well worth the effort it takes to train our brains to trust. When we hire the best people we can find and give them the leeway to perform their jobs well, without our constant interference, we increase our own capacity tremendously, enabling us to become much more powerful in our own work.


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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