A Blog by Luke Thomas – Performance Coach & Director of Spring

Trust is something that has intrigued and frustrated me in equal measure so far this year. It’s a recurring theme in family relationships, organisational culture and especially teams, but of course, anywhere and anytime that people are connecting. I think it’s been playing on my mind because of the power it has to hurt and heal – I’ve seen a fair bit of both lately.

It’s widely known and written about that openness and vulnerability are two core steps that contribute to building trust. Lots of leadership writers will mention it in passing, yet in my opinion not give it enough of a centre stage. It’s just so critical and yet a chicken and egg issue: We need to feel trust to be vulnerable and we need to be vulnerable in order to trust.

I seem to have been going through a period of coaching and facilitation where these themes have raising their head increasingly often – or maybe I’m just noticing it because that’s the mindset I’m in? Either way, myself and colleagues have been deliberately reading, experimenting and exploring ways to build trust faster and more effectively – so that it is lasting and sustainable. There’s no silver bullet and we all get it wrong along the way. To really bring about substantial performance improvements – you need trust.

Things we’ve noticed:

  1. Culture. Circumstances always vary, and the prevailing family or organisational culture has a big influence on the types of interventions that are worth taking, to build more trust – read more here – but suffice to say, the interventions need to be sensitive to what you want to change and the setting in which it’s being changed. The method needs to match those involved or at least be consciously applied to know just how much of a stretch or challenge it will be, so that it remains productive and doesn’t slip into being destructive
  2. Individual self awareness and individual accountability within a team has a bearing on the speed and extent of change. The higher the awareness and accountability to begin with, the better. So take time to notice and assess these factors before diving in.
  3. Ego and self-serving motivations seem to slow progress quite substantially, probably because self-centredness is not conducive to someone else trusting your motives. So if you spot particular individuals failing to display enough appropriate humility for the relationship you’re working on – tackle it early on because it’ll just raise it’s head again. Here’s something else I wrote previously on ego.
  4. It will often take some real courage to share things that display vulnerability but build trust “because as human beings, especially the adult variety, we have this crazy desire for self-preservation. The idea of putting ourselves at risk for the good of others is not natural, and is rarely rewarded in life, at least not in the ways that most people expect.” (Lencioni 5 Dysfunctions Field Guide p17-18 Click here for the book itself)
  5. Brene Brown’s research on vulnerability is particularly useful. I like how she isolates what vulnerability isn’t, as much as what it is. Many people will have already seen her popular Ted Talk – click here.  And off the back of hearing her name crop up regularly, I began dipping into her book more – It’s called Daring Greatly – click here.  Her body of research covers how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead – and she believes it is encapsulated in an excerpt from a speech made by Theodore Roosevelt’s speech ‘Citizenship in a Republic.’ The speech, sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena,” was delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, on April 23, 1910. This is the passage that made the speech famous:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

Trust is built one marble at a time. And so to the title of this blog. Brene Brown comments in Daring Greatly p47 that “There is no trust test, no scoring system, no green light that tells us that it’s safe to let ourselves be seen. Her research participants described trust as a slow-building, layered process that happens over time. In our family, we refer to trust as “The Marble Jar.”… which comes from a teacher’s method used at her daughter’s school whereby “…when the class was collectively making good choices, [the teacher] would throw some marbles into a jar. Whenever the class was acting out, breaking rules, or not listening, the teacher would take marbles out of the jar. If and when the marbles made it to the top of the jar, the students would be rewarded with a celebration party… And the teacher didn’t say “I’m not buying a jar and marbles until I know that the class can collectively make good choices.” The jar was there on the first day of school. In fact, by the end of the first day, she had already filled the bottom with a layer of marbles. The kids didn’t say “We’re not going to make good choices because we don’t believe you’ll put marbles in the jar.” They worked hard and enthusiastically engaged with the marble jar idea based on their teacher’s word.”

Brene’s daughter came up against some teasing and bullying from other girls after she had disclosed something embarrassing about herself. In tears, she decided never to tell anyone anything again. Yet exploring it together Mother and Daughter they considered friendships and relationships through the marble jar idea. Considering “when someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honours what you share with them as private… then you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out.” And the story continues to explore the little moments of truth that mean marbles top up or come out e.g At face value I saw that as a simplistic point scoring exercise – with more thought I grew to like the evidence based approach it takes. The reality is, most people have long memories when it comes to being hurt, betrayed or let down. Therefore taking a practical approach to assessing whether a relationship is valuable enough to invest in, and to notice the dynamics of that relationship being two-way and with joint investment, works well for my values set. It’s also a nice and easy encouragement to notice the positive, constructive moves that you and others are making – rather than fixating on all the things that are causing pain, annoyance or other issues.

So there you go. Some food for thought I hope. Some ways to look at your own situations that might shed fresh light on the way you’re approaching this important facet of life, love and leadership.