I am often asked by leaders how to build greater trust on their teams. Like any coach or facilitator, I know a lot of tools and methods for building trust. But the truth is, nothing builds trust better than what happens after you  break it.

Trust develops over time, through trial and testing, through conflict discord. In short, it’s the breakdown of trust that holds the promise of building greater trust. 

Adam Kahane, author of Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust,  writes that the old way of thinking about collaboration and trust don’t work anymore. To solve today’s most pressing and complex problems, we just can’t rely on the existence of shared goals and vision. Nor do we have the time and leisure to have trust emerge organically, through the bonds of collegiality and friendship.

In other words, trust is not a precondition to working together, it’s the result. 

Let me say it again.

Trust is not a precondition, it’s an outcome

The assumption that we begin with trust, is not just naïve, it’s also impossible.

And yet I hear it all the time with the teams and organizations I have worked with and within. When I ask what the problem is, the answer I hear most often is: “we don’t trust each other,” or  “we need more trust on this team.” 

But a lack of trust is the result, not the cause. When I hear people speak about trust in this way, I can’t help but think that they’re not talking about building teamwork, but guaranteeing the conditions for teamwork: 

“Demonstrate beforehand that  you will do what you say and prove accountable … then we can work together.”

Sadly, life doesn’t work that way. 

We cannot make our capacity to act and succeed conditional upon the actions of another. We cannot guarantee success at the outset. 

Not in the workplace, and not in relationships. 

We get involved with untested people. We often commit, marry, sign a mortgage and have children with people who’ve not been fully vetted. 

Why? Because it takes a long time to really know someone. 

And we’re unproven too. 

We can’t be trusted because we don’t know ourselves fully either. We cannot know who we will be in five years … or even next week. Life changes us. And life happens very fast. 

Loss, grief, financial hardships, and family struggles can change our value systems and our outlook at the blink of an eye. 

Even moment to moment, we cannot be fully honest about our motivations and feelings. We have limits, conflicts, and biases within ourselves that we haven’t even uncovered. 

Which brings me to the second misconception about trust. 

Once we do make the conceptual leap required to see that trust has to be earned, not given, we are faced with the question of how.

So how do we earn trust? Most people will answer, “by proving ourselves trustworthy, of course.”

But being fully trustworthy is impossible. No one is infallible. 

The dirty secret behind the billion dollar “trust and teamwork” industry is that being fully trustworthy is never possible.

We’re going to disappoint people. And we are going to be let down.

Everyone, at some point, has proven themselves untrustworthy. As long as there is some part of us of which we are not fully aware … as long as we are growing beings, we will have blind spots. 

We will say one thing, feel another, and do yet another, without being cognizant.

  • We say yes when we should say no and override our exhaustion because we don’t want to disappoint people … but then we don’t have the energy to follow through.
  • We agree to help because we’re driven by a need to be useful … but we’re overcommitted and drop the ball.
  • We are desperate for recognition so we join a team with a high profile … but then feel out of our depth and can’t really deliver what we’ve said we would.
  • We get angry and resentful that our project was dropped, funding rescinded, and then become unconsciously obstructionist and difficult to work with.

There are a million reasons why, in any given moment, our behavior undermines our trustworthiness.

So, how do we build trust? Whom can I trust, if no one is fully trustworthy, including myself?

As I see it, trust is earned, built, and demonstrated in the actions following the breakdown of trust. I trust people who make mistakes, fail to meet their goals, or let me down … if they are able to admit it, apologize, and be honest about where they have fallen short.

Trust is developed not by avoiding mistakes and conflicts, but by making and repairing them. In other words, true trust is not developed by making good on our word, but on what we do after we break it.

Here’s what builds trust, in my experience:

Stop measuring trust as an all or nothing deal. I can be trusted for some things, but not others. Befriend trust as something partial, and not absolute. Know what you can and can’t be trusted on, and make sure people know that. 

Learn how to identify and admit your shortcomings. The more we know our limits, and can discuss them with others, the more forewarned and thus forearmed everyone can be. 

Our desire to be perfect makes us hide our shortcomings, and this is what makes us untrustworthy in the eyes of others.

Master the art of apology. People who cannot apologize are protecting themselves at the expense of the teamwork. But apologies are not just about admitting wrongdoing, and saying you’re sorry. 

They must also include understanding, and expressing your empathy over the discomfort or difficulty that the other person experienced as a result of your actions. Unless you know and feel what your actions resulted in, you’re not really apologizing.

We will disappoint each other. We will disappoint ourselves. But it’s what happens afterwards that counts—that’s when trust is built. 

If you can have an honest conversation about your own limitations and the limitations of others—those things that make us all untrustworthy—then you have just put into place the foundation for lasting trust.