Using A Million-Dollar Mistake To Build Trust

I often get asked by leaders who want to coach their staff: “How do I build trust with those I work with, so they will raise the real issues they face?”

My response is that you build trust step by step, with every conversation you have.

If someone makes an error or opens themselves up to you and is vulnerable to you, and then you slap them around metaphorically, then you’re putting up a big neon sign in the air: don’t be  vulnerable with me.

A much better approach is to thank them for raising that issue and then add something encouraging. You have lots of options, including:

  • It is really good that you’ve raised that issue;
  • Let’s work on it together;
  • What do you think needs to happen;
  • What do you think the best solution is;
  • That’s sounds interesting;
  • Have you considered …

What if someone makes a million-dollar mistake? I remember when I was leading a group that had significant operational and service delivery responsibilities. A staff member came to see me and said that he thought he may have made an error in programming that resulted in over-payments. He was very anxious and upset. I thanked him for letting me know and asked him to walk me through what he had done and why he thought he may have made an error.

As we talked and worked together he calmed down. It turned out that he had indeed made a mistake. Hundreds of organisations had been over-paid and the mistake involved many millions of dollars. His guilt and shame went up. I used a gentle voice tone and told him that we would work it through together.

We immediately developed a plan for how to tackle the problem. We then met with the Deputy CEO to give a heads up and discuss our proposed solution. She was very angry, which I thought was both understandable and unhelpful, and I spent time in the meeting calming the dynamic. Our solution was accepted and was implemented at once. When the initial flurry of activity was complete I supported him through a debrief about how the problem had happened, so we could avoid it happening again.

To build trust with people, you need to be trustworthy. If they come and see you to talk about an issue, be accessible. If a direct report can’t get time with you for a fortnight at a time, then your diary is too full.

Once you’re together, it needs to be a good conversation where you give the person your full attention. You share the airtime (who speaks), giving most of the time to them, so that they feel fully heard. Solutions proposed should predominately come from them rather than you – encourage their ideas to show that you trust and respect them. And obviously, there should be no criticisms about your people behind their backs – that just crushes trust and respect.

So, its good news. You build trust by being trustworthy, and the person who has maximum impact on building that trust is you, by how you behave and engage.

I was filling in for the operational and service delivery role while it was permanently filled. When I left all my people were in front of me, some with tears in their eyes – he was one of them. They told me that they had never experienced so much coaching and support – that it had been wonderful. He told me that he had learned an enormous amount and had decided to shift his career based on the opportunities I had given him. It had been a powerful and positive experience for him.

Most people need time to build trust; not many people give you absolute trust straight away. They are learning what you are like as a person and what you are like to talk with, every day.

Trust is built in layers. It’s like what Stephen Covey says, “You put credits in the bank.” So, every time somebody comes to you, raises an issue and it’s a good conversation, you have put credit in the bank – and you are building your trust account.

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