Improve Your Skill in Building Trust
A few months ago, Kenny Hanson, founder at Mentorpass, asked on Twitter: How do you build trust?
Maybe it was summer break being just weeks away, but I immediately thought of summer camp as a kid as a model for trust building.
At camp, in just a week’s time, I would build relationships filled with more meaning and trust than with people I’d known for years.
Today I’m going to unpack the Summer Camp secret sauce to trust building so you can apply it to your relationships, teams, and organization.
Why Trust Matters
With more trust, you get more honesty, more feedback, and better thinking in your organization.
Trust is connection. High-trust relationships are stronger relationships. And stronger relationships can withstand the struggles you’re sure to face along the way.
Better conversations, better retention, and better retention. The wins are worth it.
Unfortunately, most leaders haven’t understood nor applied the lessons that we can pull from summer camp.
So let’s dive in, step by step:
Step 1: Make a Once-in-a-Lifetime First Impression
Every year as our bus pulled into camp, the counselors and staff lined the driveway applauding our arrival. Kids scrambled to the windows, mouths agape at the joy on the staff’s faces all because of our arrival.
I’ve still never felt as welcomed in a place as I did in that first moment that we arrived at camp. Each year after, it was a delight to see the new kids welcomed in the same powerful way.
First interactions establish the conditions for trust-building.
Every new person that you hire should feel more welcomed than they ever have been before. As soon as they sign your offer to join, ship them a welcome package. A handwritten note and some high-value company swag are a great start. If you have an office, their desk should be pristinely set up on Day 1. If you’re a remote company, use someone like Firstbase to onboard them with the right equipment for their own office.
You’re setting the stage for a different type of relationship with your team, yourself, and the company. These first interactions are fundamental to trust. They open our hearts.
You’ve heard this advice about the importance of onboarding before…but have you actually taken the time to make it exceptional?
Step 2: Foster a Sense of Belonging and Psychological Safety
As we got off the bus, we grabbed our bags and headed to our cabin. Cabins ranged from 8-16 people. First, there would be a short scramble of kids picking the bed that they wanted (the top of the triple bunk beds were of course the most sought-after spots).
After that, it was your first Cabin Time. Each cabin’s adult leader gathered everyone in a circle on the floor and asked a series of questions like “What are you more excited about this week at camp?” and “What are you most fearful of this week?” Everyone had a chance to answer or could pass if they’d prefer.
Cabin Time continued each night at camp to hold a safe place to be real. And over the course of the week, each kid experienced that you were safe here with me and with us.
At that first Cabin Time, we also found out what color your cabin was on. The entire camp was divided into four equally sized teams that you’d be competing against in a series of events over the week: tug-o-war, an epic water balloon fight.
You lived together and competed together. This was the basis of the cabin. We were thrust into conditions that build trust fast.
Fostering a sense of belonging and psychological safety is straightforward, but requires intentionality to be accelerated. This is the #1 reason Summer Camps build trust fast. You belong. The entire experience is built around this premise from the first moment.
Compare the camp experience to your past experiences at work or school. It probably took months if not years of being around certain people before you ever - if at all - felt like you belonged.
In Cabin Time there is a useful model for companies to follow. When are there times to be real about how things are going? When can I feel together with others? Ritualize times to gather together. Team meetings and manager-report one-on-ones are natural places for this, enlist the leader to prompt with the questions that get a bit below the surface.
Creating other opportunities for smaller group discussions on current and important topics is a regularly missed opportunity. Here are two of my favorite ways to do this:
- At company All-Hands meetings build breakout discussions into the agenda. Give a prompt like “What’s your reaction to X?” or “What is one way we can do a better job of Y?” and then send groups into breakouts of 5-8 people to each share. Then have each group report back on their one favorite answer.
- I’ve run peer circles in a few organizations and seen the tremendous power of having others in similar roles to work through challenges together. The more cross-functional the better for creating a broader sense of belonging across the org.
When I work with teams on developing leadership offsites a question I’ve been asked on more than one occasion is “Are you going to make us do trust falls?” and while I never have, it’s clear why they work. You learn that your team has your back. That you’re safe here just as you are - whether you’re scared, confident, overweight, or unsure. Skip the trust falls and weave that same learning into the work.
Step 3: Pair Certainty and Autonomy in Everyone’s Role
At the end of your first Cabin Time, you were handed and walked through the week’s schedule.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are at the same time every day. A bell will ring when it’s time to head to the cafeteria. Each morning had a variety of activities - team games, archery, ropes course, mountain biking - that you do as a cabin (there’s the sense of belonging again too). The day ends at 10 pm when you head back to your cabin. This type of certainty melts away the anxiety of the unknown.
Afternoons are for autonomy. Ample free time to visit the climbing wall, horseback riding, basketball, rappelling down a 40 ft cliff, foosball, or just lounging at the pool. Each camper gets to choose what they do and who they do it with.
Within the first hour of camp, you knew most of what to expect from the week and felt in control of a number of choices to come.
Most companies think they provide certainty and autonomy. Few do it well.
Start with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Everyone should have certainty about what they are accountable for and within those responsibilities maximum autonomy to experiment and explore. Most teams that I meet draft a fluffy job description for new hires. It reads like an advertisement for why to come to work with us. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that it often doesn’t explicitly make clear what this new person will actually be responsible for. And if it does, then it fails to be clear on how their role and responsibilities fit within their team and how their team’s collective responsibilities fit within the org as a whole. Some people are self-starters enough to figure this out on their own. Most won’t, so make it clear to them.
Edgar Schein, a psychologist who focused on business, captures this in his book Helping:
Effective teams require attention on building trust across all of the nodes in the team. This is largely the leader's job. Beginning with helping each person see how their role is vital to the team's success and then creating the right amount of interdependency between people's roles.
Following this advice, the simplest way to create certainty and autonomy here is to:
- Have team leads draft their team’s responsibilities, align on those across all team leads, and revisit those annually.
- Start each new hiring process by drafting that role’s responsibilities and then craft the public job posting.
Other places to create certainty are in clearly defined people processes (how we manage performance, give promotions, our expected working hours, and how we schedule vacations) and team and organizational processes (when we hold all-hands meetings, when teams meet, how we set goals, how we learn from our collective performance). The list here is long and yet each is a lever in creating an environment in which trust can develop.
It’s hard for anyone to feel trust when they don’t know what to expect nor how to follow their curiosity at work.
Step 4: Vulnerability, the Key Trust Building Activity
There were always a few times in the week when during Cabin Time someone would share something especially real, deep, and raw. Occasionally there were tears when something was voiced, perhaps for the first time ever.
Those moments were often met by others nodding their heads that they had also experienced similar pains in life. It was a rare time in my youth when I was invited to be real. I didn’t always accept the invite. But to be invited is magic. You trust someone more when you see the real them. And they trust you when they can reveal their truth and still be fully accepted. I left camp each year feeling like brothers with my cabin like I’d do anything for them. All because of the formula that the camp had concocted.
The shortcut to trust is vulnerability.
Edgar Schein, again in Helping, offers a simple two-step model for this: Testing and Response.
Testing is revealing something personal and meaningful to others. The sharer is testing the receiver to see if what they shared was safe and will be accepted. They are essentially asking “Am I ok, do I still belong if I share this?”
Response is the receivers’ acknowledgment that what was said is acceptable. Often, a step further happens where empathy is evoked in the receivers who come to see the Tester as more human, more honest, and in doing so appreciate them more. This is the magic of vulnerability playing out.
Through Testing and Response, the Tester learns that they can reveal more and more without the risk of being taken advantage of or put down.
Using this model is a bold act of leadership. In my summer camp cabin, someone had to be brave enough to go first. And from there, a new, more honest, more trusting conversation can develop.
Here’s Tracy Lawrence, a founder that I deeply admire sharing her experience leading in this way on LinkedIn:
The Recipe for Trust
- First impressions set the stage for trust to grow so make your onboarding exceptional.
- Build belonging into ritualizes times for gathering.
- Create certainty and autonomy through clear roles and responsibilities.
- Lead through vulnerability.
Trust is a virtuous circle.
Jonathan Haidt notes in The Happiness Hypothesis that:
In moments where we feel uplifted (a sense of trust, love, motivation) we release oxytocin, which makes us more receptive to new relationships with others
Trust builds more openness for trust. A truly virtuous circle. Your job is to get the flywheel spinning. Start with one of the ideas above and build from there.
⚡️ Action Zone
If you're curious to explore building trust more, here are two ways:
A request for you: Do a quick analysis: Which of the above four trust-building ideas are you (or your company) weakest on right now?
A challenge to consider: Commit to finding a moment this week to lead with vulnerability. Share something that you normally wouldn’t. This can be as simple as sharing an appreciation, a story from your past that’s impacted you, or just sharing how you’re feeling in the moment. Be intentional in trying this and see what response you get. Does it work? Were you left feeling more connected to those that you shared with?