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What Does Trust Mean?

  October 18, 2021

The word "trust" is used a lot in many organizations. We know that building and maintaining trust is very important. But when we say, "I trust you" or "I don’t trust you" or "There's a trust issue on this team," what are we actually saying?

Unfortunately, often nothing clear. We use that word to mean so many different things, and that lack of clarity can lead to a lot of confusion.

You can trust me to keep what you say to me confidential, for instance. But please, don’t trust me to perform your open-heart surgery.

When my clients talk about trust, I ask them to specify exactly what they mean. That enables them to have much clearer dialogues, or to make sure they're focusing on the right factors.

I like breaking "trust" into different words, all starting with the letter C:

  • Competence: I trust you that you're capable of doing your work.
  • Confidence: I trust that you'll deliver high-quality work when I delegate something to you.
  • Confidentiality: I trust that if I ask you to keep something private, you'll do so.
  • Caring: I trust that you really care about me as a human being, that you have my back.
  • Congruence: I trust that you walk your talk, that you mean what you say, and you'll follow through.
  • Candid: I trust that you'll tell me what you're really thinking, even if you know that may be uncomfortable.
  • Character: I trust that you have integrity, that you have a set of values that are meaningful to you and that you strive to live by them.
  • Compassion: I trust not only that you care about me but also that you'll be kind and sensitive to me.
  • Conscientious: I trust that you'll pay attention to details.
  • Communication: I trust that you have good skills for sharing ideas in verbal and written form.
  • Clear and conscious: I trust that you know yourself well, that you'll tell me when you don't feel comfortable doing something, that you know your limits and that you're cultivating self-awareness.

You can see, for example, how I might trust that someone has the competence to do a piece of work but don't have the confidence that they'll actually make it a priority and follow through to deliver high-quality work, perhaps because I sense that they don't care enough about it to apply their full abilities, that they're not conscientious or that they won't be candid about any problems that arise.

I recommend not using the word "trust," or at least clarifying exactly what you mean when you use it. When you say, "We have trust issues on this team," is it about the ability to carry out the work that's assigned? Or that you stab each other in the back? Or that you don't feel safe being honest with each other because it might be used against you? The more you can clarify the issue, the more directly you can address it.

And when you do identify what kind of trust issue is present, it's vital to also ask to what extent it's being driven by the culture or context in which you're working, rather than being an issue that resides within individuals. In my experience, most trust issues have more to do with the culture than with the individuals. For example, fear of impending layoffs can lead people to not share timely information with each other, or to take credit for work they didn't do, out of self-preservation.

When teams are led in a way that fosters competition over collaboration, it can cause people to work against each other, fight for scarce rewards and build themselves up at the expense of others. When organizations don't give people the tools and time to do quality work, others find it hard to count on them delivering what's been promised. Dominator hierarchies — where people at the top don't expect to be questioned, and where those who dare to question are punished in overt or covert ways — foster a culture in which people don't share what they really think.

Think about what you really mean when you use the word "trust." I trust you'll find this helpful.

Originally published by Forbes Coaches Council



Master Cerfified Coach

Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC, is an executive coach and organizational consultant with extensive training and over 30 years’ experience in understanding the functioning of both organizations and the people within them. His focus is on leadership development, executive coaching and team/organizational effectiveness. A licensed Psychologist, he is an Official Member of the Forbes Coaches Council and the ICF has designated him a Master Certified Coach, their highest credential. His work incorporates the Enneagram, Mindfulness, Practical Neuroscience, Adult Development, Polarities, Complexity and other capacity-building approaches. His clients have included Exxon-Mobil, General Electric, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Bank of NY Mellon, IBM, ADP, Broadridge, Ferrellgas, Grainger, PeopleSoft, StorageTek, Wide Open West, Ledcor, HSBC, PCL, Government of Alberta, Royal Bank, Dialog, Sanofi-Aventis, Edmonton Police Service, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, University of Calgary, Rehrig Pacific, New Belgium Brewing, Hagemeyer, HYL Architects, and Los Alamos National Labs.

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