Trust is earned.
Trust is earned.

How to Build Trust

Psychologial Safety from the ground up

I’m not a mother, and I don’t understand the built-in drive to protect a child the same way a mother does. I don’t understand the labor pains of birthing a child into the world.

I have, however, birthed an idea that I’m nurturing into a startup. It’s my baby. Something very precious to me. I don’t know if it’s any good, but I do know it’s mine and I care about it as a mother cares for her child.

Birthing ideas are not very different to birthing babies after all. They start off as just a fun idea, then grow inside your mind where no-one can see it until it becomes too big and uncomfortable to hold in. Finally, it is birthed through a lot of emotional pain. If, after all, it was easy to birth good ideas, everyone would do it.

When a new startup comes into the world as a small little seed, it is vulnerable and in need of protection and nurturing just like a newborn baby. Safety is a prerequisite for its survival. When safety is compromised in any way, trust is broken. With no trust, there can be no meaningful relationship to nurture this seed and it will never grow into a tree.

A tale of broken trust

I recently reached out to someone to help me build my startup. What I needed was something he had — a relationship with the key stakeholder I plan to approach as my first, and most important, customer. I didn’t want anything else, just an introduction.

I reached out to him with my request and he agreed with one condition — that he wants to know more about the idea before he connects me with his network.

Fair enough.

I agreed, trusting he will keep my newly baby safe. After all, a few weeks earlier when the yet unfinished idea was first birthed he explicitly said he will follow my lead on this and asked me what I needed. No reason not to trust him.

So our relationship started off with 100% trust in my barometer, even though he was a near stranger. Each time we interacted with each other, the trust was either maintained or compromised. At first, trust was kept high on both ends. Our communication was great, we both kept out promises and it felt as if we were on the same page. I was enthusiastic that my idea might become something real!

Slowly but surely though, he started slacking, as if he didn’t need to maintain the trust after the initial interactions built enough trust. He started living in his head, not sharing his expectations or thoughts with me. I asked questions but got no response. It felt as if he started taking over the idea, making it into something much bigger and different than what it is intended to be at this early stage. He started moving it into a different direction than what I wanted it to go and I started feeling more and more misunderstood.

As I became aware of the growing gap in expectations, I immediately tried to remedy it with more explicit questions, outlining my expectations and inviting him to outline his. I received silence in return. His focus was on the future version of the startup and very far away from the current reality and the immediate next step to take it to fruition.

Each time I shared and didn’t receive an answer to my question, the barometer of trust cooled down just a bit. Each time I sensed the expectation gap widening between us, the temperature in the barometer slided downward.

Then, finally we sat down and I presented all the things he asked for as per our agreement. I again asked what he wanted, and eventually got a vague response. The answer had commitment, but lacked the substance I put on the table. It felt as if I gave everything and he gave 10%. Trust minus one again.

On the follow-up, which marked the end of the first milestone we set, trust was finally broken completely. His previous eagerness has cooled down to a “I’ll get to it when I have time”. My urgency grew as his aloofness grew. Finally, he responded by saying he needs to protect his network and is not willing to share the contact with me. Trust on zero, but with a possibility to be redeemed.

I asked him what changed in our agreement?

He didn’t really have a valid reason. It felt as if he was just buying more time to allow him to point out something crucially missing in the information I provided. What he said now and what he said earlier started to contradict each other.

But then he did the unforgivable. He shared the idea with a third party whom I don’t know and whom he never introduced to me or explained how this person fits into the picture, all without my consent or input. His choice of words also indicated that he has now taken ownership of my baby and that I was merely an instrument to help him reach his goals. It felt as if there were no “we” left. Only a him. My needs forgotten.

This terribly-gone-wrong interaction made me spend a lot of time self-reflecting. What could I have done differently? Where did it go wrong? After all, it started off so good. And most of all, how do you build a nurturing, safe environment from the ground up?

Safety is formed when you build more trust than what you break.

Learning from failure

No-one is superman. Even the best of the best have their flaws. Perfection is something that makes you unapproachable and inhumane, someone who no-one can relate to, even though they might look up to that person. It’s those flaws and those mistakes that make you more admirable, more human, more approachable.

The key to building safety is not to try to be perfect and never make a mistake, but balancing and correcting when you do, to always keep the barometer above freezing point.

Here are the lesson I learned from our interaction — both the good and the bad.

Building trust

1. Communicate often

Feedback is the most crucial aspect of a trust-based relationship. Regularly catch-up, especially in the early stages of the relationship. Rather over-communicate than under-communicate in the initial phases.

Don’t assume anything.

2. Communicate in person

Face-to-face communication is by far the most effective form of communication. It’s, however, not realistic or possible for two busy people in different locations to meet in person daily.

When, however, there is the slightest risk of trust being compromised, get together in person and talk about it.

3. Practice good listening

When you’re busy thinking about a response or how you would do it, you’re not listening to the other person. Good listening requires you to clear your mind and focus your attention outward onto the other person speaking.

Good listening boils down to searching for what the other person needs from you. What does he need to hear? What does he need to feel safe? What does he need to move forward?

4. Actions speak louder than words

Being a good listening doesn’t merely mean you hear the words spoken. It requires you to react and respond to it. Actions speak much louder than words.

Talk is cheap. Rather, put your money where your mouth is and do something to prove you have heard and understood what the other person needs.

5. Be honest

One of the hardest things for the human race is to be honest about their needs, their wants and mostly, their emotions. Understandably. No-one would willingly hurt another when they realize that by hurting that person you are only hurting yourself.

However, shying away from having difficult conversations hurts much more than the hurt of the truth. When you are honest about both the good and the bad you experience, you allow the other person to give you more of the good and an opportunity to change the bad.

When you only want to be the good guy, you deny the other person an opportunity to improve and strengthen a relationship. You also deny yourself from meeting your own needs above someone else’s needs.

6. Start with an agreement on expectations

In a budding new relationship, whether one-on-one or in a team setting, one of the most important things to do is to explicitly clarify and agree on expectations. It doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down, but it needs to be explicit enough for both parties to think about and agree on expectations.

The bigger the expectation gap gets, the harder it gets to close. By starting with agreeing on expectations, even though it might be vague and bound to change, you are starting with a strong foundation and a 0 deficit on the trust barometer.

7. Keep your promises

When you make an appointment for 2pm, be there at 2pm. Or earlier. When you said you will introduce me to your network when I meet your expectations, do it.

Integrity is probably the biggest indicator of both respect and trust. Say what you do and do what you say. Always. No exception.

8. Set small goals

Dream big. Start small.

Start with a small goal and meet that before moving onto the next, bigger goal. Having too big a goal too early in the process is like asking someone to marry them on a first date. It’s probably not very realistic.

A startup first, above everything else, needs to gain traction. The business world can learn a lot from this. Once there is enough traction, growth is much easier, but those initial steps are the crucial ones that differentiate success from failure. Making that initial step too big is setting yourself up for failure.

Breaking trust

On the other side of the coin, here are some things that break trust.

1. Not responding

Not responding is a a deal breaker. When you don’t respond it indicates that you don’t value the other person.

It is better to respond with a one-liner setting a clear expectation with when you will be able to respond more fully than not responding with the intent of responding more comprehensively.

Say “I got your mail, I will only be able to respond by Monday. Is that ok?” or something similar that acknowledge the interaction. Without responding communication is a one-way street and that is not communication.

2. Being late and managing time

Your time is not more valuable than mine, even though you might believe it is. Being late is an indication of the level of respect you have for the other person.

Being late should be an exception, rather than the rule. It should be used in necessary situations, not out of habit. When you are late for a first meeting, it immediately sets an expectation that it is acceptable to be late.

When you’re not able to manage your own time, how are you to be trusted in managing something like a business?

3. Telling rather than asking

Our world’s biggest disease today is their inability to ask. Ask for help, ask for clarity, ask for input, ask for forgiveness.

Without a question, there is no conversation.

When you want someone to come to an event, ask them politely. Sending a message saying “There is an event that I’m hosting, hope you can make it.” is not a question. It is a statement that communicates that it’s all about you and that whether the recipient comes or not is really not important. It is merely a bulletin to inform you. Asking “There is an event that I’m hosting. I would love for you to attend. Would you like to join?” sounds inviting, inclusive, as if the other person matters.

Which feels better?

4. Being too busy

Being busy I have found is 80% of the time not productive. When I hear that you are too busy for me, I hear that I am not important and that my input in the matter is not needed. In other words, I am insignificant compared to other things on your to-do list.

If you want to build trust, make time to respond. Make time to listen. Make time to build the relationship.

That doesn’t mean being a brat or selfish. It means respect the other person’s expectations.

5. Using “I” rather than “we”

Culture is formed around conversations. The importance of vocabulary is extremely under-rated. Changing a single word in a sentence has the potential to make a much bigger change in perception than a lot of actions.

When you say “I” when you talk about the product it indicates you own it. If you want shared ownership, make sure that you use “we”.

When you say “I” when expressing a need, however, it indicates responsibility. Using “we” or “you” indicates that you’re not willing to own your own needs or emotions. It assumes that you know best for the other person, without asking their perspective first.

6. Shifting the goalposts

When you say the milestone that marks when you will be ready to share your contacts with me is once you have enough information on the product, moving it breaks trust.

Keep to the initial agreement, or agree to shift it collaboratively. Never without consulting the other party.

7. Talking rather than doing

Talk is cheap. In the startup world, early feedback and failing fast are the crucial first steps towards success. The more you talk about a solution and how to get it perfect, the less time you spend doing something about it, the longer it takes to get feedback, the more likely you are to fail or get it wrong.

Timing is everything.

8. Not asking permission

When you share trade secrets with a third party without consent, it is like having an affair. You are breaking trust.

Only ever disclose secrets entrusted to you with the permission of the person who shared it with you.

Trust is earned

Trust is a barometer than needs constant attention to keep its warmth. It’s not a milestone that you can reach and keep forever, just like an oven’s thermostat constantly clicks on and off to maintain its heat.

You need to actively work at maintaining trust, adding more trust-worthy actions than compromising trust.

Whether you are a leader or a father or a friend, your primary focus should be on nurturing safety. Only when the other person feels safe is it possible to build something together.

Originally published in Medium: