Diagnosing Trust

by | Coaching, Leadership, Uncategorized

Think about one of the most difficult relationships you’ve ever had at work. The type of relationship where you  cringe when you have to go and speak to this person, where your chest tightens when you’re put on a project together, and you get heart palpitations when you need to ask them to sign off on something.


We’ve all had them. The hard part is knowing how to improve them.

Often when I’m talking to my coaching clients about being stuck on a piece of work or a key project, the biggest roadblock is not the work itself, it’s the people they need to work with in order to get the work done. These could be people that report into them, executive level leaders who they need influence, or someone with niche technical expertise in another area of the business.

So, I spend a lot of time in coaching talking about relationships, how to work together effectively, and the basis of human connection, and establishing trust.
Think back to that difficult relationship, did you trust that person? Did they trust you?

How do we define trust?

 What makes up trust between two people?
There are so many helpful frameworks for trust. The one I use most often in coaching is the Trust Equation, from the Trusted Advisor. It’s a really simple framework that helps us to understand the components that make up trust, diagnose where the issue may lie, and identify strategies to help re-build this.

Now for those who never liked maths (like me!), let me help you, as this is unfortunately an equation! The three components above the line, making up the numerator are Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy. I like to add the word ‘Professional’ in front of intimacy. The reason? No matter how many times I’ve talked through this in leadership development sessions, there’s always someone who giggles or sniggers when we start talking about intimacy, so it’s best to be clear about what we mean here.

Let’s break down each of these components.

Credibility: Do you believe they have skills, competence and experience to deliver?

Reliability: Do they do what they say they will do? Are they consistent? Do they deliver?

Professional Intimacy: Do you have a genuine HUMAN connection? Do you feel safe and secure sharing information with them? Do you know something about them? Do they know something about you?

For each of the aspects in the numerator we are looking for high scores to raise the trust score. Below the line, in the denominator, we have:

Self-Orientation: is the conversation always about what they want and need? Are they in it for themselves and not for others?

The higher the score on self-orientation in the denominator, the lower the level of trust.


Help me work out the trust issue in this relationship!

 Ok, so how do we use it? Here’s how I talk this through with a coachee. Let’s say my coachee, Priya, is having a hard time working with her colleague Jamie. To try and get to the root cause of what may be going on and how to improve the trust between them, we walk through each of the components of the model and I’ll ask Priya to describe the components from her point of view first; i.e., do you see Jamie as credible? Why is that? What evidence do you have? What’s happened in the past to give you this perspective?

Once we have established how Priya feels about Jamie, then I’ll ask her to put herself in Jamie’s shoes for a minute and think about how Jamie would view her credibility. What evidence does he have? What behaviour has he seen from her? We will walk through each of the components in this way to establish how Priya feels about Jamie, and how Jamie MAY be feeling about Priya (noting we are making assumptions here).

This discussion helps us to understand where the weaknesses lie in this relationship, and identify some strategies to start to build trust with Jamie.


Ah-Ha moments

Coaches often come to a session frustrated about a co-worker and how difficult they are to work with. When we start to unpick the relationship in this way and understand what’s causing the tension in the relationship, I can’t tell you how many times we have identified that the coachees’ own reaction to something in the past has led to the breakdown of trust.

Let’s say Priya asked Jamie for some data to add in to a report she was writing. Jamie missed the deadline in delivering the data. Priya was peeved, as this meant her report was then late to the leadership team. This caused her some angst with her boss. This one incident started a downward trust spiral. Priya no longer ‘trusted’ Jamie. This caused her to pull back in building the relationship. There was a lack of professional intimacy established, which over time meant that it was harder and harder for Priya to ask Jamie for data to help with her reporting. Jamie may have started to question Priya’s credibility and her self-orientation and felt that there was no connection between them. All in all, the trust was lost and the relationship started to die a slow and painful death.

Often when credibility, reliability or self-orientation are questioned, we pull back heavily on professional intimacy and stop trying to establish a connection with someone. This is what exacerbates feeling unsafe and decimates trust.


The Grease on the Gears

I explain human connection to my clients as the ‘grease on the gears’. When trust is missing between the two of you and you’re trying to get work done, changing the gears is clunky, loud, a bit jerky and uncomfortable. When you’ve established the relationship and invested in a level of professional intimacy where you feel comfortable with this person, you’ve greased the gears; when you need something it’s easy to ask, the gears change seamlessly, it’s quiet, fast and you’re onto the next challenge.

When there’s been an issue with trust, we often put a wall up. This wall is what’s getting in the way of building trust again. We need to start taking this wall down brick by brick to establish the conditions for trust to grow. In many instances, this means establishing professional intimacy, and basic human connection.

So, what next?

Charlie Green, from the Trusted Advisor explains that we will get more benefit from addressing our weaknesses in the trust equation than increasing our strengths. The reason is that when someone is consistent across all four of the components, we see them as balanced and trustworthy. So, if we have been unreliable in the past, this is what we’ll need to work on in order to re-establish trust with others.

The purpose in using a framework like this is to get us thinking about trust. This equation can be really helpful when you’re trying to understand what’s gone wrong in a relationship, why doesn’t that person trust you? Or why don’t you trust them? It makes it easier to break it down and understand where our strengths and weaknesses lie, and help us identify some simple steps to start to re-build trust.

Want more?

If you’d like to learn more about trust, here are some of the resources I share most often with my clients:

The Trusted Advisor for videos and practical tools on building trust.
Brené Brown Braving Trust Podcast

Or give me a shout and we can have a coaching session!