Mutual Trust and Communication


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Without mutual trust very little can be accomplished. Gaining trust necessarily involves real communication, a process in which everyone involved really listens as well as speaks. Listening simply means focusing on what the other person is saying. It involves not interrupting and not mentally reloading your gun with new arguments.

Listening also involves checking, making sure you did hear the message the other person sent. After the other person has finished speaking, checking involves saying, “This is what I think you said. Did I get that right?” The process of checking assures accurate communication while it also slows things down and defuses emotion because checking is unemotional fact-finding.

But style counts: subordinates need to know what bosses and team members are comfortable with. Every organization has an unwritten norm about confrontation and disagreement and every employee needs to know what it is. And every boss has a very personal response to input, especially criticism.

When I was an Associate Dean at the University of Michigan, my boss, Dean Billy Frye, Ph.D., was intrinsically a humble man who really wanted input – confirming or challenging – from everyone before he made a decision. But the great majority of Executives that I have worked with see agreement as loyalty and have a built-in push-back mechanism any time they’re disagreed with, especially in public. A good rule is to make suggestions to them in public and disagree in private.

The reason trust is a huge asset and mistrust is a huge liability is that when people trust they’re not using a lot of energy protecting themselves because they anticipate being abused and manipulated. Without trust people are defensive, cynical and suspicious so there is no possibility of collaboration. Mistrust, therefore, makes it almost impossible to achieve important change, a shared focus and any sense of commitment and engagement. Success requires widespread trust because people, who trust the organization, its leadership and their boss are psychologically free to concentrate, collaborate and commit.

Interdependent and mutual relationships between people in an organization are based on trust. When the organization trusts its employees and employees reciprocate, everyone is psychologically free to fully engage their work. Without trust people are not preoccupied with their work; instead they’re obsessed with how to avoid the next betrayal.

Trust is created when people feel that someone’s word is their bond and when they’re told something will happen, it does. But the very rate of change in today’s world makes it hard to predict and be consistent. Trust, therefore, depends on unusual levels of candor – an open book culture – and on powerful values that support it which everyone buys into. Now retired CarMax’s CEO, Austin Ligon, started his Q&A sessions with employees by asking them to tell him anything the company is doing that is stupid or unnecessary, or just doesn’t make sense. That’s a clear invitation for employees to speak out and they do.

Many managers are not comfortable managing people and prefer to view their responsibility as limited to hitting the numbers. But achieving the numbers requires the enthusiasm and on-board enthusiasm of subordinates and that depends on positive relationships between subordinates and managers and between team members.

While forthright communication is very high on the list of Must-Happen, speaking out and telling the truth are not common behaviors in most organizations. Fortunately these are pretty easy skills to learn if you want to be good at it. Candor needs to be rewarded and evasion needs to become a behavior that people reject. In order to make this happen, managers need to use peer pressure from employee’s colleagues, and they must be models of the behavior they need from everyone.

Managers need, for example, to speak out about an important problem such as losing a major customer. The tone of the communication needs to express concern and curiosity about what’s going on. Bosses should ask questions and not volunteer opinions, especially those that that start with, “This is what I think.” That sets the stage for required agreement and the boss won’t learn anything from the people who actually interact with that customer and who might even be in touch with the competition.

After describing the problem management should ask for comments about why it happened and what the next steps might be. If there are no volunteers, the manager must call on people, for example: “Marilyn, you’ve been with us a long time. What do you think?” “Ron, you’re new and might see things differently. What would you say?” “Irene, you’ve heard from Marilyn and Ron. Do you agree with them or would you say something different?”

The goal is to have everyone willing to put their views out on the table. When I was a Dean and created an Executive Committee it took six months of hard work to get every member to really listen and speak up. But it’s worth the work. Silence is destructive because it simply masks disagreements. Disagreements that are expressed have a good chance of being resolved. Unexpressed disagreements usually end up as heated conflicts. In fact, when people disagree they don’t speak out to the boss, but they do speak out in anger and frustration to their friends and allies. That usually leads to employees taking sides and political in-fighting. It’s hard to imagine a worse outcome.

Especially in today’s fast-moving and extremely competitive environment, an organization’s culture has to reinforce the necessity of speaking out in order to solve problems while really listening to the opinions of others. An open culture of speaking up and respectful listening invites participation and discussion. Then disagreement has a chance of becoming a situation in which different views are explored which often creates synergy and innovation as well as compromise and trust.


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