Building Trust Safely at Work
What is the downside of trust?
28 June 2017
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In November 2014, I attended an Agile conference in London at which I heard one of the speakers talk about bringing your whole self to work. This was an entirely new concept for me. She had suffered from a mental illness but had found it relieved her stress as she returned to work when she shared this information with her colleagues. She suggested that letting people know about your whole self means that you do not have to put on an act at work, and that enables people to make allowances for you as necessary.
I decided to try this approach. After all, trust is commonly listed among the core principles of Agile. Until then, I had always kept myself very private from my colleagues at work and never shared very much about my home life or my issues and problems. I had felt that being at work meant being professional, which meant holding back anything personal from my colleagues. This newfound freedom enabled me to let people know what issues I had and certainly meant that they could be sympathetic and make allowances for me whenever it was needed. I liked it.
Some years later, I found out the hard way that I had shared so much information with my colleagues that I had actually begun to make myself vulnerable to them, especially where I had misjudged the safety of my relationships. It was at this point that I learned about vulnerable trust.
Depending on your dictionary, trust is defined more or less as, "The belief that someone is good and honest and will not harm you, or that something is safe and reliable."
Vulnerability is therefore inherent in trust. Trust requires us to become vulnerable to others. If you believe that someone will not harm you, or that something is safe, then you make yourself vulnerable as soon as you rely on this expectation. There is always that possibility that you may be let down. If you misplace your trust, then you may be hurt by the person or thing that you relied upon and you experience the manifestation of that vulnerability.
Back to my example of sharing personal information with colleagues and opening yourself up to them at work: Every time you trust someone, you make yourself a little more vulnerable. With each new snippet of information that you share about yourself, you are extending that trust and that vulnerability. Share the entire contents of your heart and mind, and you have taken a very great risk and made yourself very vulnerable indeed.
I experienced this myself, firsthand, with a colleague with whom I wanted to develop a close and positive working relationship. There were some tensions between us, but each time I hit one of these I believed that opening myself up and trusting further was the way to ensure that we finally reached the nirvana that I was looking for. Unfortunately, in doing so I had made myself so vulnerable to that person that when we hit a major professional disagreement one day, it had catastrophic effects. I felt betrayed and badly hurt in the extreme, because of the level of trust I’d assumed and the vulnerability that accompanied this.
I was very fortunate at this time to be given some wise words from an astute professional who understood well what I had done. She gave me a wonderful analogy to follow, which clearly demonstrated the mistake I had made. This is what I have learned about vulnerable trust and how to build trust more safely.
Think of yourself in the central stronghold of a castle. The castle has a number of outer walls with gates. Only you can control who is allowed in through these gates. Each time you trust someone, you let them through a gate into a more central part of the castle. Keep letting people through and they will eventually be in your most private and safe confines, where you will become completely vulnerable to them. Keeping them in outer courtyards of the castle limits their closeness to you and, equally, limits your vulnerability to them.
Trusting someone with something — be it a possession or some personal information — is letting them in through the gate of the next castle wall. If you don’t feel that someone can be trusted, do not let them come through. Do not share that item or that thought or feeling with them. If you let them through and they demonstrate that you were right to trust them, great. You can consider letting them through the next gate. If they let you down, kick them out of the castle walls until they prove they can be trusted again.
I think of this as layered levels of trust and checkpoints that people must go through that protect you from becoming too vulnerable, unless you are sure that your trust is well placed. Of course, your partner in life has been allowed right into your inner sanctum because you have chosen to trust them completely in your relationship. Your best friend is probably there too. But where are your work colleagues? They are distributed throughout the layers of the castle courtyards, depending on the level of trust you have given them and the level of vulnerability you have risked in doing so. Letting people through your castle gates without being certain of their trustworthiness is a risky thing to do and is how I ended up so badly hurt. My trust was based solely on hope and not on the reality and experience of the relationship I wanted to improve.
Trust is a good thing. It builds relationships and it builds teams. However, it needs to be measured and verified so that it can be built without the level of risk that can cause catastrophic results if it fails. I’d taken the advice of the conference presenter to the extreme, without testing the safety of the relationships I had in place. Now the castle gates are there as checkpoints to validate that the risk is appropriate at each stage. Be ready to move people in and of out those castle gates one by one, not on a blind hope that it will be fine in the end but based on your experience of their trustworthiness to you.
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