14th May 2018 Tony Corballis

Trustbuilding begins with Trustworthy

Some themes just keep coming up. On certain frequently-occurring competencies actively sought in recruitment, I’ve coached many hundreds of people. One of these is trust-building.

Trust-building is such a strong buzzword in an age obsessed with seeing and identifying both internal and external stakeholders as ‘customers’. It seems so important in an age of competitiveness, where getting ahead – either as an individual or as a product, service or business – can often only happen through intricate strategic alliances and partnerships. Think about the value-synergies in collaborations among the big corporate communications and NGOs, or the great airline alliances collaborating on routes and regional access, or among brands and their piggybackers – like AirSorted or iSmash.

So, I decided it was necessary to cross-check against some of the gurus. The softly spoken Frances Frei, a Harvard Business School professor, deems trust as the marker and fuel to unprecedented human progress. She recently assigned herself to Uber to immerse and work out why trust was failing.

In my role-plays at Corballis Communication, I have four typical indicators for assessing trust-building narratives, scalable depending on the seniority of my client. I’ll come to mine in a moment.

Frances on the other hand has just three (for me to map against, today). Hers are: 1. being authentic; 2. being rigorous in your logic; and 3. being empathetic. She argues that for trust to win, we need all three at once.

Being authentic means being you. People can plainly see when you are blocking something. Frances argues for paying less attention on what you think people want to hear from you, and more on being exactly who you want to be. And she urges leaders to establish conditions in which diverse people can be safe and celebrate who we are.

Being rigorous with your logic includes being able to communicate it. Frances celebrates anecdote and taking listeners on a journey, with “twists, turns and drama”. She believes in starting with a clear point, as a crisp half sentence, and then giving immediate supporting evidence. This ensures people get access to you even if they cut you off.

Being empathetic seems rather obvious, but it’s not. Frances suggests looking for where empathy is killed. Like focusing on what annoys you. Or being attached to your mobile. In Uber, she was struck by people messaging one another within meetings – about the very meeting! We should instead try to look up and at the other and immerse in their perspectives.

Onora O’Neill, a prominent philosopher, similarly advises us on trust. But she turns it upside-down and questions our choice of questions on it. She sees that, in modern life with so many angry echo-chamber accusations flying about, people seem to buy into standard perceptions of trust 1. that it has declined; 2. that we should have more; and 3. that this needs to be ‘rebuilt’.

She proposes that, in reality, trust is not monolithic. Most people differentiate their trust among those within all target groups and institutions. Some primary school teachers we may trust; others we may not. Or we may trust them to inspire and mobilise youth, but not to drive the school bus.

The opinion polls on our trust in politicians and institutions mean nothing, she argues. In fact, she suggests that our trust tends to be the same in any era, but that what varies is where we direct it. It is useful to have your trust intelligently aimed and intelligently denied. Some friends we can trust to enfranchise and charm with their eloquence; but we may not trust them with secrets.

Yet, when a midwife has to spend more time filling bureaucratic forms than bringing babies into the world, or a further education lecturer has to watchdog her students against being illegal migrants for fear of prosecution, rather than just teaching human beings, it signifies mistrust. We are mistrusted. Bureaucratic systems of accountability and self-assessment in business and government serve to eclipse the professional acts of giving to our societies. These indicate mistrust by a greater society. It’s boring. And it hurts.

Still, flipping it is the answer, according to Onora. Trust doesn’t matter, trustworthiness does. Rebuilding trust really means being trustworthy. So how do we become trustworthy? Well Frances Frei had three indicators and so does Onora O’Neill. Hers are: 1. Are we competent? 2. Are we honest? 3. Are we reliable?

Time to compare. My indicators on trust-building are fourfold: 1. Quality of delivery and contact – do you create a feeling of excellence when you encounter your target? 2. Consistency – do you do this every single time you encounter your target? 3. Professionalism and standards of behavioural convention in communication – does your persona fit what is expected? 4. Functional or commercial empathy – can and do you imagine what it feels like to sit in Treasury or Digital Marketing or Legal or wherever? Do you think about what makes your stakeholder successful in their own appraisal, or satisfied as they drift off on their commute home? Have you thought about how you could make their job easier or their objectives more easily achieved?

I would add one more from my personal life. Show weakness. Expose your secrets. Mention your fears. In other words, in measured doses and when appropriate, be totally human and make yourself vulnerable to the other party. This works. When I stopped locking away my valuables during home exchanges, I suddenly noticed my guests respected the property more and cleaned immaculately on their departure. When I tell audiences who have performance anxieties about my own such obstacles in the 1990s, they open up and address their demons more readily. They trust me and my approach. Revealing your vulnerabilities shows you have confidence in the other and live by those standards and thereby invite and expect others to. And so they do. It is the ethos that many a disruptive technology like Airbnb is based on.

So – the acid test – how was my indicator fit with those of the gurus?

Indeed, quality fits with Frances’ rigorous logic and Onora’s competence. Consistency fits Onora’s reliability. Standards in communication fit with Frances’ rigorous logic and authenticity and Onora’s competence and honesty. Functional or commercial empathy fits with Onora’s empathy. The thinking on vulnerability fits very well with Frances’ authenticity. I think we’ve done well. There is plenty of overlap. I shall take a moment therefore to synthesize and form a new set of possible indicators to use in my role-plays.

  1. Quality and competence in delivery.
  2. Consistency.
  3. Behavioural convention with honest communication.
  4. Functional or commercial empathy.
  5. Authenticity including vulnerability.

Feel free to talk to me about your competencies for any assessment or interview.

Tony Corballis

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