Vulnerability-Based Trust

by Geof Lory, PMP

In many of my articles I have referenced the importance of trust in projects and families. However, I have deliberately avoided writing an article specifically about trust because I was searching for a way to convey such a large subject in the brief spot this column entertains.

So, in true agile project management fashion, I decided to break the topic of trust into more consumable and deliverable chunks. This article is the first in a series on understanding, building and maintaining trust through the life cycle of a project and the stages of team building. Naturally, it will be related to the life cycle or maturation of the parent child relationship. I hope I can do it justice.

Understanding Trust

In preparation for presenting on "Trust as a Foundation for Creativity and Innovation" at a recent PMI® seminar, I pulled down every self-development, team-building and leadership book I have on my office shelves. I went though each table of contents and index looking for the word "trust" or any topic that might be related to trust. As expected, every single book made some reference to the importance of trust in building and maintaining relationships. Most dedicated at least a chapter, and not surprisingly, it was usually one of the first chapters.

So, why all the fuss about trust? Is it really that important? At the risk of over-simplifying, I see trust as both the glue that binds and the oil that lubricates all relationships. It is what fills the emotional space between us. Without it, we randomly clunk together creating friction or exist as separate and independent islands. Either way, without trust, we are individuals unable to leverage our collective interdependence or protect ourselves from the abrasion of our differences. I think understanding the paradoxical nature of trust—both glue and oil—is key to uncovering some of the basic components and value of trust.

Trust Helps Handle the Unknown

When my children were young, I enjoyed watching their movies with them, especially the ones where the cartoon characters' voices are those of some of the great comedians of our generation. One of my favorite was Ferngully, with Batty the bat, voiced by Robin Williams. In one scene, after frenetically flying hither and thither as bats do, he clumsily smashes into a tree. As he is slowly sliding down the bark with a dazed look on his face, he says, "Gravity works."

Gravity works. You can count on it. The outcome is predictable and even formulated. Newtonian science is founded on it. You could say you "trust gravity," but in reality it's a given. The certainty of the outcome does not require trust. It is in the uncertainty of relationships that trust comes into play. People are just not as reliable or predictable as gravity. Trust is necessary when the future is unpredictable.

Three Elements of Trust

In general, I consider myself a trusting soul. When reasonable and prudent, I am pretty free in trusting others. But what constitutes "reasonable and prudent"? As you might guess with all relationships and interactions between people, it is situational. What determines the situational risk is the level of trust (commitment and competency) weighed against the willingness to be vulnerable (reason and prudence).

For every situation, and in every relationship or interaction, we make a decision to trust someone based on three things.

  1. Our belief or understanding of the other person's competency (ability to perform)
  2. Our belief or understanding of the other person's commitment (willingness or desire to perform)
  3. Our willingness to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the potential outcome if our belief or understanding is wrong and the trust is betrayed

Competency can be externally and empirically measured and as such is usually easier to assess and determine. You can test for competency and see its results. Competency typically grows with experience. It is usually slow to develop and equally slow to be lost. Competency is the growing outcome of the learning process. (See "Learning by Layering" for more.)

Commitment, on the other hand, is more difficult to assess, but can be inferred in many ways. Commitment is about prioritization, focus and intent—putting your money where your mouth is. It is easy to say you are committed, but if you don't follow the words up with action, it is wishful thinking or self-serving lip service. Action and intent speak to the level of true commitment.

Competent and committed, willing and able—together they create an environment for trust, based on our perceptions of and belief in the other person. However, trust will only be developed if we are willing to be vulnerable.

Willingness to make ourselves vulnerable is our personal choice. It is this willingness that is the limiting factor in developing trust. Competency can be developed. Commitment can be inspired. But the willingness to drop our guard and extend our trust when the outcome is uncertain is the basis of vulnerability-based trust. The first two speak to how trustable the other person is, the third is about how trusting we are. For trust to exist, both sides are required; and we have greater control over our side of the equation.

I don't know that I have ever heard of anyone explicitly measuring trust by calculating it mathematically, but I do believe we all do it subconsciously. We assess the person's competency and commitment (using our experience with them as a stating point), and take into consideration the situation (our options and willingness to be vulnerable). That determines how much we will trust them.

The Challenge - Extending Trust

I trust my local car mechanic. He has demonstrated competency in auto repair and is committed to doing a good job so I will remain a happy customer and provide repeat business. My vulnerability is cost and inconvenience, both of which I am willing to extend to him. However, as good a mechanic as he is, I would not trust him to manage my investments or fix my computer. He has no demonstrated competency in either and to my understanding would not be committed to either.

Extending trust became more personally risky when my daughters first started driving. (See "Practice vs Experience."). And just recently, I bought my mid-life crisis car: a five-speed sports car which they were both very eager to learn to drive. After several hours of herky-jerky practice in the local cemetery (a great place to safely develop driving competency with your teenagers), I was mildly comfortable with their competency. Then, one afternoon the request came. "Dad, can I use your car to go to a party at Samantha's?"

I enjoy my sports car and have a lot of fun driving it, but not nearly as much as I enjoy the trusting relationship I have with my daughters. Of course the answer was, "Yes." And of course I held my breath the entire evening wondering if it was a reasonable and prudent decision. And when the car and my daughter came home safe and unscathed, our relationship took a major step forward.

It is often said that trust isn't given freely; it must be earned. Surprisingly, she has not asked to borrow the car since that evening. Perhaps I was being tested, or maybe it was just the novelty. I don't know. But taking chances—making yourself vulnerable—after assessing situational competency and commitment, builds trust.

There are many other ways to escalate the development of trust. In the next article we'll talk about how to create an environment conducive to building trust, and what we can do to increase our own willingness to venture into vulnerability-based trust relationships at work and home.

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