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Building Swift Trust

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 7 March 2017

There's an African proverb that says: "If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together".

It goes to the heart of working cooperatively and collaboratively. We know that together we can achieve more. And we know that working together requires the essential ingredient of trust. It's essential for team performance, for collaboration and for managing effective change.

But there are a couple of real challenges to this ideal. One is this sort of trust normally takes a long time to establish. The other is that we usually don't have a lot of time and we often need to engage trust quickly.

Compounding the issue is that trusting others is an act of vulnerability, which typically requires ceding control. And most of us dislike both of those experiences.

The need for "swift trust" is perhaps most readily evident in emergency response and crisis situations. Sometimes called "Swift Starting Action Teams", such groups are typically composed of experts in their respective fields who don't normally work together but have to immediately perform cooperatively at a high level of effectiveness.

But it's not only combat units or emergency response teams that need swift trust. Many project teams, virtual teams, research teams and task forces have the same requirements to harness collective expertise without the benefit of prior relationships. And in any case, our continually changing working environments, which increasingly call upon adaptability and flexibility, require most of us to engage cooperatively and rapidly. Which calls upon mutual trust and the inherent challenges of time and vulnerability.

Here are three principles for enabling and supporting swift trust:
First, establish common ground and shared purpose. An environment of "we, us, our". We often note how a crisis situation will "bring out the best in people". A significant part of that is because the clarity of the situation focuses attention on the task or challenge, with personal concerns set aside. When a group has a clear and shared purpose it helps everyone to focus on what matters as well as to understand their role and the roles of others. It's also because we see each other as sharing common ground - the situation isn't your's or mine, but our's.

Unfamiliar situations naturally create wariness and uncertainty. One practical way to ease this and encourage a sense of shared purpose and collective contributions is to ensure everyone gets a positive introduction. Confidence and collective credibility emerges from mutual respect and appreciation.

Second, encourage the common components of trust. Among these are: openness, acceptance, congruence (alignment of what we say and what we mean), reliability, and competence. These are the signals of trust that we naturally look for, so it's important to be conscious of our behaviours (not just our intent). Intentionally sharing information, encouraging and acknowledging others contributions, talking straight, making and following through on commitments, and sharing our expertise creates an environment of psychological safety for a group.

One way to encourage and reinforce these components is to tap "the power of small wins". Look for opportunities to celebrate progress towards the goal. Too often we wait until the end to celebrate, when there are frequent opportunities to acknowledge progress and maintain motivation and a sense of shared achievement.

Third, extend trust. Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust, quotes former PepsiCo CEO Craig Weatherup as saying that "Trust cannot become a performance multiplier unless the leader is prepared to go first". Trust does involve risk and vulnerability. It's a choice. It's an act of courage. Which makes it a leadership responsibility. If we expect trust we must show trust.

People trust what they see. Demonstrating trusting and trustworthy behaviours sends a powerful signal.

Trust contains enormous power for performance. Joel Peterson, chairman of Jet Blue, founder of Peterson Partners equity fund, consulting professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and co-author of The 10 Laws of Trust, sums it up like this: "I believe that trust is more powerful than power itself. It supports innovation and flexibility, and it makes life more enjoyable and more productive. People who live in high-trust environments thrive".

Aubrey Warren
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies
© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017

Amabile, T. & Kramer, (2001). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review (May).
Covey, S.M.R. How the best leaders build trust.  http://www.leadershipnow.com/CoveyOnTrust.html
Kinni, T. (2016). How smart leaders build trust. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/how-smart-leaders-build-trust
Wildman, J., Shuffler, M., Lazzara, E., Fiore, S., Burke, C.S., Salas, E., and Garven, S.  (2012). Trust development in Swift Starting Action Teams: A multilevel framework. US Army Research. Paper 162. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/usarmyresearch/162

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