Blog Post: What Drives Trust



In my work with leaders and organizations, trust is a perennial topic of coaching sessions.  This focus makes sense.  After all, when an organization is trying to perform at a high level, trust is a necessary ingredient (perhaps THE necessary ingredient).  Why?  Because the need for trust is everywhere.  It’s a factor in communication, cooperation, decision-making, and growth.  Trust is like the motor oil for an engine – the parts that work together also cause friction and heat so they need the lubricating relief of trust so they can rev up without breaking down. 

As important as trust is, it’s often misunderstood.  One of the biggest mysteries is the question of where trust originates.  We tend to know what diminishes and even destroys trust, but is trust developed merely by working hard not to lose it?  No.  Trust has three main sources. 

In their HBR article Begin With Trust,  Francis Frei and Anne Morriss describe a Triangle of Trust that represents the three main drivers of trust. 

  1. Authenticity – I experience the real you.

People cannot trust you if they don’t know you.  If they feel like they are experiencing only a version of you, they are wise to withhold trust until they know more fully who they are truly dealing with.  Authenticity builds upon and goes beyond honesty.  Authenticity involves appropriate transparency and vulnerability. 

  1. Empathy – I believe you care about me and my success.

A psychopath could be authentic, but you wouldn’t trust him – or at least you shouldn’t!  We trust people who we believe care about us and want what is best for us.  Not to sound too sappy, but the more people know you love them (in the way Dallas Willard defines love), the more they will (and should) trust you. 

  1. Logic – I know you can do it; your reasoning and judgement are sound.

People need to have confidence in the rigor of your ideas and full faith in your ability to deliver on your ideas, otherwise, trust cannot grow.   

Frei and Morriss’s interest in trust focuses on workplace teams and colleagues.  But what about trust in our coaching relationships?  How do these three drivers of trust apply in coaching? 

Authenticity.  Coaching clients need to know they are dealing with a real human being, not a saintly simulacra.  While we want clients to believe we are capable, we undermine trust if we hide our faults, veil our vulnerabilities, and pretend we have no imperfections.  This doesn’t mean we need to parade our personal lives in front of every client and potential client.  It does mean we need to be real.  Sometimes we need to let our guard down. 

Authenticity happens to be one of my personal values.  I have a slate slab on my kitchen wall that’s etched with the phrase esse quam videri – “to be rather than to seem.”  I value authenticity and reinforce the importance of it in my life because I find it so tempting to be inauthentic.  The temptation to pretend in order to fit in, to be liked, to impress, is strong. 

I’m at my most authentic with my coaching clients when I stop trying to be their coach and lean into being myself in a way that is helpful and aligned with the principles of coaching.  This means I am rather direct, use plenty of humor, illustrate things, use metaphors a lot, and press for the wonderful value of clarity and conciseness.  I share some personal anecdotes when appropriate.  I express genuine care, concern, and conviction for my clients.  Hopefully, they experience me as authentic.   

Empathy.  Frei and Morriss encourage leaders to notice which of the three drivers has the most “wobble” and my most wobbly one is definitely empathy.  I care a lot about outcomes, which can sometimes come across as not caring for the person getting the outcomes.  I prefer task over relationship.  I like meetings and conversations with a clear agenda and practical goals.   

Surprisingly, of all the people in my life, I am probably my most empathetic with my coaching clients.  Perhaps this is because a coaching relationship naturally has a focus and an agreed-upon goal.  But I think it goes deeper than that.  I think it’s because I gain great joy from being a part of someone else’s success.  In fact, sometimes I can want my client’s success more than they want it.   

I think empathy is best expressed in a coaching relationship by holding the client’s focus on what matters most to the client.  Giving the client undiluted attention and holding the client’s own attention on the client, the client’s value, the client’s agenda, etc. is a powerful and rare gift.  Sometimes a client wants the focus to shift elsewhere.  Nope.  My job is to care for the client and to influence the client to care for the client enough to do the hard work of willing and working for the client’s highest self-interest.   

Saint Augustine defined happiness as having what you desire and desiring that which is best for you.  I want my clients to be happy.  I want my clients to desire the best and to have as much of it as they can.   

Logic.  When we think of a coach as a “sounding board” we have to be careful that we don’t mean “an echo chamber.”  Sometimes a client is full of you-know-what.  Sometimes they have hair-brain ideas.  Sometimes what they need from a coach is a logic filter, not a cheerleader.   

A client cannot trust my encouragement if I don’t sometimes provide challenges.  While it’s true that the client owns the ideas and they are the main judge of whether their ideas are good, it’s also true that most clients want and benefit from the coach offering perspective. 

I recently had a client who needed to have a tough conversation with a key employee.  His plan was to send a lengthy email.  You and I both know that is a bad idea, but my client was in the fog of war.  His emotions were high, and his brain was hijacked.  I gently told him that such a conversation was too important for email.  I said, “The good thing about email is that it’s in writing and there can be less debate about what exactly you’re saying.  The bad thing is that it’s cowardly, it loses the power of your leadership presence, and it provides too much time to chew, stew, and spew (ponder, get perturbed, and then vent with others).  No, you want to have the conversation in person and do it in a way that it’s just as clear and tangible as if you’d sent it in writing.”   

The next time my client has a great idea and asks me my opinion, he can trust my encouragement because he knows my reasoning and judgement are sound and that I will authentically tell him the truth because I care about him. 

In your own coaching, how’s the trust?   

Which clients do you feel a strong level of trust?  Where is trust lacking? 

Which of the three drivers of trust is most wobbly for you?  What can you do about it? 

Don’t neglect trust.  When a client trusts you, they are willing to lean into the coaching relationship more fully, hold back far less, and make the most of what a relationship with you has to offer.   

1 thought on “What Drives Trust”

  1. Not mentioned in this post is a leader’s confidence in themselves. A confident leader trusts their own abilities to communicate, empathize, cooperate – they trust their own abilities. A confident leaders exudes faith, trust, and confidence in those they lead and they will reciprocate in turn. What are the signs of a leader who lacks confidence? A yeller. A micromanager. Someone sleeps in their office. Someone who uses their authority or position to manage their people. These types of leaders lack confidence and therefore, they lack trust in their people who lack trust in their leader.

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