Trust Retention

November 16, 2008 by
Filed under: People, Teamwork 

When I let one of my kids know they’ve got 10 minutes before we need to be out the door for one of their activities, it’s a safe bet that the response I will get is an “OK Dad.” Unfortunately, it is also a pretty safe bet that we’ll be getting out the door more than a few minutes late. It’s a dance we have fallen into that happens all too often with technical teams as well. I can’t trust them to be good to their word, and I have fallen into the trap of just letting that happen.

In my case, the worst thing that can happen is that they are late for soccer or skating. Despite the frustrations, I can live with that. Consequences in technical teams can be more dire.

Trust in relationships evolves over time, and one of the most powerful tools we have to build trust is to set expectations and to meet those expectations more often than not. If I say I’ll do something and fail to deliver once, most relationships can accommodate that one-time slip up and move on. If I manage to make a habit of this, to promise something and repeatedly fail to deliver, the words lose their meaning. My victim becomes trained to trust my actions over my words. Soon it doesn’t matter what I say: expectations are that I will fail, almost as a defense mechanism against disappointment.

When we get into that situation, it can be hard to dig ourselves out. We will naturally point fingers at the other party as the culprit for our challenges, with cries of “You never deliver on your promise”, or “You don’t trust me”, depending on which side you are on.

Duh. Both of these statements ring true, but do nothing to resolve the situation. Masters of the obvious at work here.

Yes, trust has been eroded, as a result of this circular dance we have fallen into. Expectations have not been met, with a response that’s better than feared. “Well, maybe it’s not so bad to fail to meet expectations after all…”, one party might think, even if subconsciously. “OK, so two misses in a row, that’s hardly a streak…” is the response. And so it goes, eroding the trust along the way, to the point where there is none left, and neither party can find a way out of their familiar, if uncomfortable behaviors.

That vicious circle needs to be broken, and either party has the opportunity to step up and take the initiative, if only they can get past the blame game that is happening. The questions need to be asked “what have I done to get us to this place, and what can I do to break this cycle?” Whether it is to start setting expectations that are realistic (even if they are not positive) and meeting them, or to be clear about the costs of failed expectations and sticking to them, we need to give notice that we’re not gonna dance this dance anymore.

In relationships that have been built over years, the level of trust between two people is based primarily on the experiences between the two, not on any original trust thresholds that may have existed to begin with. If we neglect our responsibility for maintaining trust by failing to manage expectations, the relationship is in grave danger of seizing up. Say what you will do, and do what you have said you would do. Conversely, say what you need and the costs of not getting it, then stick to your guns. Despite the initial discomfort, everyone will be better off. – JB

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