Trust – An Essential Collaborative Component


Apr 22, 2019 | EDR Blog

By Dianne Olson

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

 – Stephen R. Covey

Never had words rung so true as did Stephen R. Covey’s in his book with Rebecca E. Merrill in The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (Free Press 2006). I had been in the midst of tackling some pretty big organizational development issues with a non-profit organization as well as working on a statewide collaborative where communication between stakeholders and the public land agency kept breaking down. On the outside, both issues seemed pretty different and distinctive, but after reading The Speed of Trust upon a recommendation by a board member, the underlying, undermining factor in the situation was clear as day. There was a lack of trust between the key stakeholders in each process.

On one hand with the non-profit organization, trust was low between management and the staff. Staff didn’t feel like their efforts to communicate their concerns and program needs were being understood and addressed. Management didn’t understand what was behind staff stress levels and why they were getting push back on implementing additional programming. Communications were strained, management decision weren’t transparent, and the group didn’t feel comfortable discussing issues as a group as much as they did through side conversations.

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On the other hand in a different setting with a different group and challenge, a public land management agency was tackling recreation impacts in a sensitive desert environment. Reeling from a recent management decision being overturned by the courts, the agency wanted to look for new ways to address recreation impact issues by partnering with a variety of stakeholders with an interest in this particular landscape. It took months of conversations to get representatives from the conservation groups in the same room as the recreational target shooting community as well as off-highway vehicle users together to provide input on management options for the area. Needless to say, there was no love lost among the various groups and tension escalated with an active lawsuit between one of the groups and the public land management agency.

Covey’s premise that our society is in a crisis of trust was painfully clear in each situation. This growing distrust in our communities affects us on all levels – societal, institutional, organizational, relational and personal – and we don’t have to go further that the strained relationship with a neighbor or turn on the evening news to see it. Communities have become more cautious, guarded and distrustful and the results manifest in the form of long airport security lines or complicated public processes. If you were to believe the traditional saying that “it takes a life time to build trust and a moment to lose it” you would be downright discouraged with the state of things. However, Covey’s book dispute’s that claim and lays out principle behaviors that help cultivate trust in one’s self as well as in our personal and professional relationships – i.e. there is hope!

“Trust” can be a noun and verb and is defined as the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Covey also defines trust as the confidence you have in someone, but starts addressing the trust crisis by looking in the mirror at ourselves—how we first must trust ourselves to build confidence and learn to extend trust to others. Trust is cultivated through two areas – Character and Competency. Character is a constant; it’s necessary for trust in any circumstance. Competence is situational; it depends on what the circumstance requires. (Covey page 30) Covey dedicates a decent portion of the book to the how character and competency manifest at various levels, or contexts in which we can either establish or diminish trust.

In addressing our own behavior, or that of an organization, Covey breaks it down into 4 Cores of Credibility: 1) Integrity; 2) Intent; 3) Capabilities; and 4) Results.  These dimensions, or foundational elements, are what contribute to our believability.

To facilitate developing those principles Covey lines out 13 trust building behaviors. While many of these behaviors may seem like no brainers, it is the holistic approach that will bring the most value to your interactions.

“Trust brings out the best in people and literally changes the dynamics of interaction” (Covey page 319).

Have a strained relationship and not really sure what went wrong? Look at the table below and see if there are areas that may be lacking. Have a troublesome stakeholder that won’t move past the poor interaction they had with a government official back in 1989? Time to right the wrongs and confront reality. These 13 behaviors can be practiced daily and in any variety of situations.

The 13 Behaviors that Build Trust

Behavior Definition
1- Talk Straight Tell the truth and demonstrate integrity.
2 – Demonstrate Respect Genuinely care for others. Show you care. Show kindness in the little things.
3 – Create Transparency Get real and genuine. Don’t hide information.
4 – Right Wrongs Apologize quickly and make restitution. Demonstrate humility.
5 – Show Loyalty Give credit to others. Speak about people as if they were present.
6 – Deliver Results Accomplish what you’re hired to do. Don’t make excuses.
7 – Get Better Learn and improve. Be thankful for feedback and act upon it.
8 – Confront Reality Take issues head on. Address the tough stuff directly.
9 – Clarify Expectations Disclose and reveal expectations. Discuss them. Validate them.
10 – Practice Accountability Take responsibility for results, good or bad. Communicate how others are doing.
11 – Listen First Listen before you speak and don’t assume you know what matters most to others.
12 – Keep Commitments Say what you’re going to do, then do what you say you’re going to do.
13 – Extend Trust Don’t withhold trust because risk is involved.

Credit:  Franklin Covey Co. “Leading at the Speed of Trust”

In my earlier examples, the groups involved started working on practicing certain trust building behaviors. In the case of the non-profit organization, “Listening First” was one of the first steps management took to allow the staff to feel heard and understood. There were a number of difficult conversations where the whole group had to “talk straight” and “confront reality” in order to start tackling the organizational issues that were impeding the growth of programs.

In addition, the public land management agency worked diligently to clarify their expectations and create transparency for the collaborative process so they were set up to keep the commitment to the process, even though they were unsure of the outcome. This gesture went a long way and paved the way for the different stakeholder groups to come to the table.

So what behaviors could you focus on to build trust in your relationships? Once you recognize trust as a factor that can either bolster or undermine your processes, how can you deposit more into the “trust bank?”

I hope this snap shot has wetted your appetite for more. I encourage anyone within ear shot to take a little time to reflect on their relationship with trust, practice the 13 trust building behaviors and take a deeper dive into Covey’s book or the other resources out there that can help you build confidence and trust in yourself and in others. 

Dianne Olson is a public engagement professional with The Langdon Group. Dianne’s passion for building trust comes from her work with public agencies over the last 17 years and seeing the results of engaging a stakeholders in various processes. Dianne is a sucker for any relationship building, organizational development, or collaborative process and reflecting on theories while out in the garden or in the Wasatch Mountains with her two children.