Extending Trust Wisely

by Geof Lory, PMP

In two previous articles, "Vulnerability-Based Trust" and "Be Credible to Build Trust", I discussed the necessary elements for trust and the behaviors associated to build credibility and show trustworthiness. These are essential because trust starts with an assessment of the environment: us and others. Understanding the fundamentals of credibility and vulnerability seems simple, but how do we go about deciding when to extend trust in our everyday dealings when consequences are not so theoretical?

Assessing trust is predominantly an outside-in activity. We take the information from our observations and knowledge base and then process that information to determine someone else's trustworthiness. However, determining logically (or even emotionally) that someone is trustworthy does not mean we will extend trust to them. It is only one side of the equation.

The other side is our willingness to extend trust to others. Several factors beyond their trustworthiness affect this willingness, but it is primarily an inside-out activity. It is a decision, conscious or unconscious, based on where we are at, our history, our belief in the potential outcome, and our willingness to be vulnerable. The challenge is extending trust and exposing our underbelly in a wise and judicious way. To do that, we need to understand how we stand in our own way of taking the calculated risks and managing them to the desired outcome.

The diagram below is a simple representation of the four major quadrants that can be considered when deciding when and how to extend trust. Within this framework, the goal is to create an environment where we can operate in the Wise Trust Zone as much as possible. But how do we do that?

Bottom left quadrant: the No Trust Zone

When both parties involved in the trust equation are low on the scale (bottom left quadrant), trust just isn't going to happen. The risk is too high from both perspectives. Under these circumstances interactions are slow and onerous filled with suspicion and fear. Process is sometimes substituted for trust in the belief that only control and micromanagement will insure reliable delivery. In reality, considering the highly volatile and changing nature of today's business, this usually does more to bottleneck the work and propagate the mistrust, further slowing down the process. The mistrust is a heavy tax by a more politically acceptable name.

Top right quadrant - the Wise Trust Zone

The upper right quadrant is the opposite of mistrust. When willingness to trust and credibility are both high, the dividends of extending trust can be realized. However, this does not mean trust is extended without good analysis and judgment. Even in this zone, assessment and judgment are essential since trust will always remain situational and each situation still needs to be assessed. Extending trust doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. Depending on our interpretation of someone's trustworthiness, trust can be extended conditionally and incrementally to further clarify or verify our assessment of the situation. Extending trust wisely always takes place against the backdrop of the outcome's potential risk.

The two remaining quadrants are where we find opportunities to increase the Wise Trust Zone. However, expanding these quadrants is approached from opposite perspectives: one outside-in, the other inside-out. In either case, the goal is to create an environment where the deficiency that precludes trust can be eliminated or validated and the Wise Trust Zone extended.

Upper left quadrant - Trust Conditionally

Here our propensity to trust is high, but the credibility of the one to be trusted is low. The 4 Cores of Credibility are used to assess the other person's trustworthiness within the context of the situation. Without this assessment blind trust or mistrust will occur. Neither is prudent. This conditional trust takes more deliberate effort and trust is developed slowly as it is incrementally extended while credibility is still in its infancy.

We can feel safer about extending conditional trust by choosing lower risk opportunities and being more deliberate with closure of expectations. These strategies, identified in "Be Credible to Build Trust," will create opportunities to better understand a team member's character and competencies, rather than continuing to operate on the assumptions made based on our interpretation of their past behaviors. When extending trust conditionally, think of the progressive improvement axiom: Plan, Do, Check, Act. The same principles and process apply for improving trust.

Bottom right quadrant - Build Trust Propensity

Here we may have evidence that the credibility of the other person is high (or there is no reason to believe that it isn't), yet we are unwilling to extend trust. To quote Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." In this quadrant we may face a greater challenge, but we also control the ability to change the situation. While that doesn't make it any easier, we can expand Wise Trust through our own choice to make ourselves vulnerable. Risky!

But why choose to extend trust? What is the compelling reason to take on that risk? There are a lot of soft reasons to extend trust, reasons that are about empowerment and allowing people to reach their potential. However, while many organizations talk about these values, few create environments where trust is encouraged or rewarded. The mindset of traditional control and management is still informally promoted as the best way to get work done. The emphasis is on managing the people rather than managing the work.

Shifting our perspective to managing the work and wisely extending trust to people can create an environment of collaboration and synergy. Extending trust almost always results in a dramatic improvement in team relationships and in the quality and productivity of performance. Trusting and being trusted, if done wisely, will pay great dividends to both parties.

One of the areas where project managers and parents struggle to extend trust is with information, both gathering and sharing it. Today's technology makes information readily available: and solid, reliable information and communication is essential to the smooth and effective management of a project as well as a rich family life. Yet information and communication, which should be opportunities to extend trust, are too often used to create mistrust instead.

In low trust environments ownership of information is seen as power, and there is mistrust around how team members will use the information. Communication is stifled. Critical information may not get shared at a level allowing teamwork to even begin to flourish. Eventually, trust in the quality of information degrades and the cycle spirals downward. Processes for documentation become onerous and mandatory formal sign-offs slow progress. Lack of trust is a tax on the efficiency of information communication.

In high trust environments information is seen as powerful. It is an opportunity to include team members and invite them into the trust model. However, not all team members are prepared for or will accept the responsibility that comes with this trust. There is a risk in sharing information, so it must be done wisely; but always with the intent of trying to grow the trust so more and better communication can occur. In this environment documentation and processes exist as a means to clarify communication and build trust. Trust becomes the accelerant of communication.

As a parent, I was very deliberate with extending the information trust with my daughters. They have grown up in the digital/Internet age, totally connected wherever they are, continually exposed to unlimited and uncensored information. It would have been foolish to think that I could control the information they absorbed.

As you might guess, I am not a big fan of parental control. Control crowds out trust and limits personal growth, which is not something I want for my daughters. That doesn't mean I ignored the dangers of youthful ignorance and curiosity—I was young once too, and probably more curious than ignorant—but parental control is a course of least effort and should be reserved for short term or extreme situations, not used as standard operating procedure.

I never restricted their access to the Internet, the programs they watched on TV or the music they listened to. Instead, I spent a lot of time and energy incrementally building a trusting relationship as their trustworthiness grew. There were occasional setbacks, but each interaction was an opportunity to grow our relationship. The reward far exceeded the risk.

Do they listen to, watch, and surf information I don't approve of today? Absolutely. But that is more about me and my preferences than whether what they are doing is intrinsically wrong or harmful. And perhaps that is my greatest lesson in learning to trust: If I want to leverage the opportunities in the bottom right quadrant, I need to get out of my own way. Like so many things in parenting and project management, knowing and doing can be worlds apart.

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