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What is "trust," exactly?
Why the way we've been taught to think about it actually f*cks us up
The buzziest buzzword in all of sports: trust.
The idea that you need to trust your teammates, trust your coaches, trust your training… trust is everywhere. And nowhere is the idea of trust more important than in the context of interpersonal relationships, between players, coaches, and staff.
But what is trust, exactly?
A wonder that it hasn’t lost all its meaning, trust is one of the most significant aspects of team performance but has been overplayed and misused as a manipulation tactic as much as a performance enhancer. Entry into almost any sporting environment starts with the idea that the new person must “build” or “earn” the trust of their teammates or peers before they can be accepted into the group. They’re told to blindly trust their coaches and their training, but that same treatment is rarely reciprocated early on.
Trust is treated this way because it’s built on a shaky foundation. It’s one of those things that we “feel” but don’t really know how to explain. Most of us know what it feels like to trust someone, and all of us know what it feels like to have trust broken. We lack any real scientific understanding of what it means to trust, how trust is built or broken, and why it’s so significant to performance.
Let’s change that.
Trust is simply predictability
The core of trust in all its forms - interpersonally, in training, in skill development - is predictability. When our ability to execute is predictable, we call it “trusting our training.” When we trust our coaches, it’s because we know how our coach is going to show up, day in and day out (if you have an unpredictable coach, chances are there’s no trust there). If you trust your teammates, it stems from believing you can anticipate how they’ll behave in game situations or in the locker room.
And when you lose trust, it’s because someone that was predictable has behaved unpredictably, and now your model of that person in your mind has been shattered.
Understanding trust in this way has profound implications for the way we go about building it in these domains. The most important place to start is with the common debate: is trust earned or given?
Is trust earned or given?
In all seriousness, if you’ve been exposed to a real competitive environment, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve heard some variation of the statement that trust needs to be earned. And that the way to earn that trust is to show up every day, work hard, blah blah blah. In other words, be predictable in the way they want to predict you.
There are two big problems with this model. First, while we’re totally unpredictable to someone else, that person is likely to also behave unpredictably. Because they don’t know us well enough to have a mental model in their head of who we are and how we behave, any slight variation in our behavior outside their prescribed model for building trust is seen as a slight and gives a reason for this person to not trust you at all, even if it’s totally within the normal variation of your behavior.
Second, behaving how someone else wants us to behave is not sustainable. If the behavior doesn’t match our motivations, goals, values, beliefs, attitudes, and more, but is instead aligned with someone else’s preferences, making those changes in the short-term is doable but in the long-term is near impossible. We’re all influenced by our environment but ultimately the behavior is our responsibility. This feeds up to point one. As soon as we do something that fits us but not them, we are inadvertently sending a signal we shouldn’t be trusted, even if the behavior we engage in isn’t untrustworthy in and of itself.
This model of building trust is wrong. It’s not wrong because it’s bad, it’s wrong because it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t align incentives around how trust can be built and maintained.
But what if, instead of asking people to earn trust, we simply gave it? What if we led from a place of trusting someone else, and then if that trust was lost, recalibrated?
Let’s revisit the big problems from this perspective.
If we begin with a baseline of giving trust instead of asking someone to earn it, we begin with the assumption that whatever their normal, preferred mode of behaving is, it’s authentic and worthy of trust. As we allow people to behave in their normal way, we build an accurate model of how that person acts and they become more predictable to us. Now, the predictability is sustainable, and we’ve seen the behavioral repertoire unfold naturally over a variety of circumstances and situations. And, we haven’t tried to force them into predictability our way. We’ve let it come about naturally.
Making trust happen
What would it be like to lead with trust, instead of expecting someone else to earn it?
Ironically, chances are that by giving someone trust from the beginning, they’re more likely to behave in ways that confirm we should trust them. If we ask someone to earn our trust, we’re creating an unsafe environment, and one that promotes them behaving in ways that might negatively impact our trust.
The way we typically think about earning trust f*cks up our opportunity to build it the right way.
So next time a new person enters your organization or team, see if you can lead with a sense that this person is already trustworthy. Ask yourself:
What’s the worst that could happen if this person is untrustworthy? Chances are it would be uncomfortable, but not an unsolvable problem.
How can I communicate that I trust this person now and that they matter? Leading with trust creates the safe environment we need to facilitate healthy relationships and performance.
How do you typically think about building trust?
What holds you back from trusting people right away?
How can you lead from a place of giving trust?