I was recently working with a group of senior leaders on a leadership programme.  On the first day they came across as on message, did well in the various activities and we had plenty of lively debate.

Bad-smell1But something was missing.  It felt like they were holding me at arm’s length, not really opening up.  Talking a good game, but there was a whiff of something malodorous in the air.

Next morning I decided to see if they would open up on this.  I told them I didn’t think they were playing straight with me.  I was confronting them, but in a nice way.  I use language along the lines of “I have an itch and with your permission would like to scratch it”.

Fortunately they decided to play ball (maybe because I had taken a risk myself in confronting them), and someone said it was because they didn’t trust each other.

When pushed it became clear that part of the problem was that the boss was in the room.

We then did a couple of activities which examine Trust, and saw for ourselves how their mutual lack of trust led to weak results.  They operated in silos, and missed all sorts of opportunities for collaboration and creative win/win.  Their conclusion was that back at work this lack of trust is real, and makes a real difference to results.

Imagine you’re the boss in this situation.  Your top people have revealed that they don’t trust each other and they don’t trust you enough to open up and be real with each other.  Relationships lack authenticity, energy is low and results are weak.  What can you do about it?

To his credit, the boss tried something, and it worked.  He told a story.

He told us about the charity work he used to do in Africa, and how he learnt there that in general people treat the Africans like children.  When they treat them as Adults the results are far more sustainable and rewarding.  He had realised from this leadership workshop that he has been treating his team like children, and that he needs to treat them as Adults, as he used to do in Africa.  He became quite emotional as he told the story, and displayed some vulnerability.

Others in the room then followed suit, and as they did so you could almost see the layers of fakery peeling away, and sense how relationships were immediately becoming more real.  Trust began to develop right before our eyes.

This experience reminded me of two things:

1.  If you’re scared it’s hard to trust other people, and if you don’t trust them it’s hard to be yourself.  If you are not true to yourself, it’s pretty hard to be a convincing leader.

2.  To build trust you need to make the first move.  Take the risk, remove the first layer.  Others may often then reciprocate, and you can jointly work towards more openness.

All the above, by the way, flies in the face of the advice you would be given in you were in the US Military, and quite possibly any military organisation, I guess.  There you are taught to hide your vulnerabilities, which would otherwise be seen as a sign of weakness.  Organisations which have a military-style culture find it hard to develop a coaching culture, because being coached is seen as displaying a vulnerability.

I think this may be part of the explanation as to why Trust was so hard for the people I’m telling you about today – their historical roots which had distinct military-style origins.

Here is  Colin Powell talking about how he was taught to deal with vulnerability.

How vulnerable are you allowed to be in your organisation, and what are the consequences?  What would happen if you were to open up with someone where you want to develop trust?