The Best Skill They Don’t Teach in Business School

Imagine this: You can’t get people to listen to you. There’s no cooperation. No responsiveness. No matter how easy it should be for people to help you, they just won’t do it, or they drag along giving you nothing but excuses.

This is a crisis of influence. Anyone who finds themselves in this situation has lost their ability to influence others, and at the core of this loss of influence is the issue of trust.

Trust is currency. The more people trust you, the more resources will flow your way. Trust and accomplishment walk hand in hand. Without trust, your employer will deny you resources, employees and colleagues won’t cooperate or respond, and customers will not buy.

Early in my career, I destroyed the trust that had been given to me. I had a reputation that I could be counted on to listen attentively and that I was “so nice to everyone,” and since the company was struggling with issues of morale among the staff, the higher-ups promoted me on faith that I would be the tonic for that.

Unfortunately, they did not get what they were looking for from me. I became distracted by the tasks of management. Positive relationships fell from my awareness and values.

My obsessive attentiveness to operational and management duties led to workaholism and disrespectful choices. Eventually l started blaming my colleagues for everything that was going wrong. Bam! Trust (and job) lost.

This was a transformational experience. Over the next several years I reflected on what had happened. It was the bass line of every new experience, every book I read, and even every movie I saw. “Is that what happened? Could I have tried that? Is that the turn when I started going downhill?”

In the years since then, I have become carefully tuned to the trust I am engendering (or not) in the people around me, and I have learned powerful lessons about how to win the trust of others. These are based on my own experience and reflections but also the reading and explorations I’ve done through others’ experience.

Here are some of the critical habits for building trust that I have collected:

  • Treat people with respect. The first line of the hippocratic oath, we all know, is “First do no harm.” That needs to be part of our own commitments to each other. If you do harm to someone, their ability to trust you will be severely hampered. In some ways, each of the following habits is a way of unpacking this one.
  • Assume that whatever you are doing will be seen/heard/known. Mom taught me this first, and life has borne it out. Whether it’s checking email under the table during a meeting, squirreling away office supplies in a personal bag, or counting some of the new month’s revenue with last month’s quarterly earnings report, when we believe that we can hide what we are doing, we are fooling ourselves into believing that what we do doesn’t matter. If you remember that somebody somewhere will see and/or figure out just what happened, it’s like having an angel on your shoulder.
  • Pay attention to (and care about) the impact you have on others, no matter what your intentions might be. Spouses can be our best teachers for this habit, because they can be quick to let us know the impact of our actions. We may object, “I didn’t mean that!” but the impact is what it is, no matter what we intended.

When someone cuts you off in traffic, it causes your heart to skip a beat, and you wish they wouldn’t do it. How much does it matter that they didn’t mean to scare the daylights out of you?  Not much! If we blindly bluster our way around without caring about the impact we have on others, it’s hard for them to trust us–they may like us and yet still refuse to leave us alone without supervision.

“I might reinvent myself to strangers, but to this day, as far as my family is concerned, I’m still the one most likely to set your house on fire.” – David Sedaris

  • Cultivate an intense interest in what other people care about. A wonderfully positive experience for anyone is that of being heard. The opposite experience is frustrating and actually destroys trust, although we don’t typically think of it that way.

Consider the typical parent-child relationship. If the child is not interested in what the parent cares about, that child won’t earn the privileges of trust. Likewise, the less the parent cares about their child’s interests, the less the child will be willing to share of their own passions, experiences, or choices. The more intensely interested you are in what others care about, the more they will trust you.

  • Constantly ask yourself, “What is the right thing to do in this situation without regard for self?” (and then do it). This one is tricky because that phrase, “without regard for self” makes many people think it’s about self-sacrifice and therefore codependent and subservient.

However, codependence and subservience actually are self-serving. There is an expected payoff: “If I please them now, they will love/appreciate/care for me.”

The question I propose is not about pleasing anyone. Sometimes the right thing to do is challenging or even hard, and we avoid doing it because we are afraid of what we might lose. This question challenges us to do the right thing even if it’s hard–even if it bears a cost to ourselves.

If you are just getting started in your career or your leadership journey, you are in the best place to begin building trust. Keen awareness of these five principles will help you to build the trust of others and honor the trust that they have given you.

If you’ve been on the journey for awhile, though, you may know that the position of being trusted can actually be frightening, because you have been gifted with a rare and fragile treasure. It could break so easily, and most of us know how human we are. We fail, we trip, fall, and scrape our knees. And our impact is not always the same as our intention!

Therefore, this final habit is also critical:

  • Love yourself enough to forgive yourself, to learn the lessons of the mistakes, and to become better.

In her definition of love, Brene Brown writes, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare” [emphasis added]. This definition is all about how trust is damaged, and yet it also offers hope. When we damage trust we can acknowledge it and heal it. We must also learn from it so we do not repeat the offense.

My years of reflection on that early management experience helped me to learn the lessons of those mistakes. I learned to recognize just how important it is for me to pay as much attention to the quality of my relationships (if not more) as to the tasks I am responsible for. I learned I can’t go around expecting people to be perfect and then blaming them when things went wrong.

Learning from mistakes helps to make the mistakes rare.

As you review this list, can you see an area in which you’ve been more likely to let things slide? I encourage you to focus on it this week and become more aware of how you are contributing to others’ ability to trust you. If you are serious about making change in any of these areas, give me a call. I’d love to be of support.

For further reading:

Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute

Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Post written by Amy Kay Watson at Career Leadership Alignment.

Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

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