How do you build trust?

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Vatema Ivy
  • 509th Force Support Squadron
Trust is the glue that binds a relationship. Without it everything will literally fall apart. You're in a life-or-death business. Can you do anything totally by yourself? Of course not! Aren't you more comfortable, more confident, when you know someone is there to "check your six?" Do you have just enough people on your work team to get the job done?

The truth is you probably don't have enough; you just make do with who you've got. That means that you need everyone on the team to do their part and you have to trust that they will. To build trust, you have to build relationships. Your effectiveness as a leader is measured by the strength of your relationships with your co-workers. If you, and the people you serve, are going to be effective, you have to trust each other.

How do you build trust? If I asked you to define trust, chances are you'd say something like, "It's when someone is always honest." How about, "When people do what they say they're going to do, you trust them." Or, "When you know you can count on her, you trust her." Those are all good thoughts but the problem with them is that they refer to what others do. Trust begins with your own thoughts and deeds.

Dr. Stephen Covey says that everything is created twice - first in the mind, then in the physical sense. In order to build trust in a relationship, you have to be trustworthy. You have to think about what's right, then you have to do it. Remember the adage, "If it is to be, it is up to me!"

Let me back up a little bit. Who do we trust? I've compiled a list of a few criteria that answers that question. 

1. We trust people who are competent. 

One of the worst things you can do as a leader is to try to "snow" your Airmen into thinking you know more than you do. Remember that you're a leader and that's what you have to be competent at. As the great philosopher, Dirty Harry, once said, "A man's gotta know his limitations." Trust is a two way street, however, so you'll have to figure out what you need to know at the level you're at and show your Airmen that you're willing to empower them to make decisions .
2. We trust people who are confident. 

You may remember a scene in a movie titled U-571 in which a young Lieutenant Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) becomes the submarine's skipper by default after the commander is killed. The Lieutenant isn't doing too good a job at leading his men. Over a cup of coffee, Harvey Keitel, playing the Chief, asks the lieutenant for permission to "speak freely." The skipper, of course, grants him permission. The Chief admonishes him, saying, "The commanding officer is a mighty and terrible thing, a man to be feared and respected. All knowing. All-powerful. The skipper always knows what to do whether he does or not."

What the Chief was trying to tell the skipper is that followers trust leaders who are confident and decisive. No decision is a decision. As a leader you'll probably make a few bad decisions, but you have to be confident in making your decisions. People will trust you when you do.

3. We trust people who make themselves available. 

I know of a leader who tells his Airmen that he has an open door policy yet when the Airmen try to make an appointment to see him, he's never there. As difficult as it may be for you to make time to be with your people, you'll have to make time to be an effective servant-leader. When you tell your Airmen you'll be there, be there. No excuses. That may mean just saying no to your boss, but make sure your boss knows your intent is to develop trust with your Airmen and that it will be a priority. Or fail. It's always your choice.

Here's a lesson I learned the hard way. As most of us do now, instead of saying "Good morning" or "good afternoon" we say, "How's it going?" Don't ask that unless you're truly interested. Here's why. As a supervisor, you'll be fairly well known if for no other reason than being in charge. I used to walk around asking people, "How are you doing?" Often, they'd stop me to tell me! Oh, it wasn't so bad if I had the time, but if I was in a hurry to get somewhere, I had to make a tough call on what, or who, was more important. I learned to leave really early for my appointments away from where I worked, just in case I was stopped. It was the only way I could assure my Airmen I was available when they needed me. They always seem to need you when you're walking down the street. That's making you available.

Building trust is an inside-out process. As I said at the start, you have to be trustworthy to even begin to build trust. An old teacher of mine, used to say, "Life is simple once you understand its complexities." I've just shared the complexities of trust with you; the simple part is that you can affect them just by doing them every day. And the more you do them, the more trustworthy you'll be.

Work on you, first, then you can lead them. Trust me. Trust is the glue. If you build it, they will come.