We often go about our days assuming trust among co-workers or trust between a boss and employees is a given, as if being on the same team is all it takes.
Unlike people, dogs are good at letting you know where you stand.
If they like you, they wag their tails and lick your face. If they don’t like you, they growl or skulk away. And if they trust you, they’ll follow you anywhere.
Trust isn’t something we think about enough at work. We often go about our days assuming trust among co-workers or trust between a boss and employees is a given, as if being on the same team is all it takes. But trust is fragile and has to be earned.
Not quite Pavlovian
I bring up dogs because I came across a new study in the journal Animal Cognition. (I read it to keep tabs on whether birds are spying on us. I suspect they are.)
The study found that dogs, prone to trust humans, quickly abandon that trust if a person gives them bad information. In the experiment, there were two sealed containers, one empty, one holding food. The dog couldn’t tell which had a treat and which was empty.
A person would first point accurately at the container that held food and the dog would come up, the container would be opened and the dog would get the treat. The next time, the person would point to the empty container, and the dog would come up and find no treat.
On the third try, with consistency, most dogs stopped responding to the human cues. Trust had been broken and they went to the container that wasn’t being pointed at.
“In other words,” the report reads, “dogs were sensitive to the reliability of the human who gave the cues and their evaluation influenced their subsequent behavior.”
Earning it, then reinforcing it
We’re more like dogs than we think. We might be inclined to trust our bosses, but that trust must be continuously reinforced. And if it’s broken, humans are quick to stop paying attention.
“Trust is the unspoken currency that drives business,” says Sheri Staak, a leadership and management expert and author of the book “Tune In to Wow Leadership.” “But so many people don’t talk about it. Trust is that unspoken collateral and credibility that you have to be aware of and think about. When you have it, it’s taken for granted, and it’s only when it gets broken that people realize how hard it is to work your way back into it.”
Communication is key
Clear and open communication is central to building and maintaining trust. Again, it’s easy with dogs. You praise them, and they know by the tone of your voice they’ve done well; you scold them and their tails droop, knowing they’ve done wrong.
But humans make things complicated. We don’t stop to think about whether our action is going to violate someone’s trust. And when a trust is violated, the aggrieved person often opts to not speak up and let the other person know what he or she did wrong.
For example, say you’re heading up a project and suddenly another person comes to you and says they’ve been added to the team. Who added them? Your supervisor did. Why weren’t you told first? Your supervisor was busy and forgot to tell you.
Overall, it’s not a big deal. But the three minutes it would’ve taken the supervisor to give you a heads up about the new person and explain the decision would’ve made a huge difference. Now you’re unsure about your supervisor and wonder when you might get blindsided by something else.
“I think a lot of trust gets eroded over time by people not thinking about how something is going to impact somebody else,” Staak says. “I think people do it unconsciously.”
But it’s a two-way street
Now you could just swallow your frustration over a situation like that and move on, but that’s only adding to the problem. Why not go to the manager and say, “Hey, I’m glad to have this new person on the team, but I wish you had given me a heads up first.”
“There’s an accountability on the other side,” Staak says. “There’s an accountability on all of us to have that open, honest dialogue back and forth in order to maintain trust. I think that gets missed in business. It’s a real problem. ”
As with most workplace dynamics, it’s up to bosses and managers to create an environment that fosters and protects trust. Staak says honesty, naturally, is foundational.
This is a very simple concept, not unlike the dog experiment. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean we can trust ourselves to unconsciously make the right moves.
Trust, both earning it and expecting it, should be in the forefront of our minds at work. (I’d also argue it should be in the forefront or our minds outside of work, but that’s another matter.)
“When it comes to trust, it’s not built overnight,” Staak says. “There has to be a great deal of patience, and you have to know it can be broken instantaneously.”
If you don’t believe that, ask a dog. They always give it to you straight.