The importance of trust for meaningful work.
A fascinating dynamic has jumped out at me in several situations recently, including both business and social justice contexts. Specifically, I have noticed that a high degree of niceness between colleagues can create frustrating tension around collaboration. It’s an interesting phenomenon among groups of people who have significant respect for one another - which, of course, is a GOOD thing.
This tension often occurs because some people who want to be kind and treat others gently have difficulty addressing conflict. They have a difficult time disagreeing. And, when you think about the most interesting and important work that we are doing, it is often fraught with disagreement.
Interesting and important work is creatively messy. People almost always have different points of view on “good” outcomes.
It can be morally complicated. Well-intentioned people, people of conscience, can have very different opinions about the right course of action to take in a complicated ethical situation, even when they are clear in their agreement on the most important aspects of the challenge.
And, execution is tricky. You may agree on what is right to do, and you may agree on what creative outcome is desirable. Yet, the road to execution - the actual process of making those ends a reality - can be rocky.
My point in describing all of this disagreement is to say that disagreement serves a purpose. And, very respectful environments can sometimes be very difficult places to disagree. Therein lies a challenge.
This is especially true if you are collaborating with people you have recently met or with folks with whom you share a difference that you want to purposefully respect. I have seen this in racial justice work recently, and I appreciate that tension. It is evidence that we are trying to hear what other people are saying and not step on people's toes. However, it remains critical that we also find a way into collaboration, into fruitful work together, and into creative solutions.
How do you get past this very real tension?
You focus on earning trust.
There are as many forms of trust as there are species, and I could double or triple this list in future posts. So, here are the top 3:
Start with the baseline trust that you will treat others will respect. That's something that - hopefully - each of you is out there creating and generating trust around on a daily basis, in all of your interactions. Of course, this isn't merely about being "nice." The honesty that is essential to collective impact resides here too: Can you trust one another to give and receive candor, respectfully?
The second is integrity - doing what you say you will do. If you agree to a deadline, if you promise to bring something to a meeting, if you promise to show up in a certain way...do exactly that. Do it when you said you would do it. Do it as well as you said you would do it. And do that every time.
Third, you must generate trust around your moral courage. This one is always relevant, but it sings out for our moment in history. For example, my city (Charlottesville, VA) is experiencing racial strife, so people are leaning on each other in new ways, collaborating across differences, and needing to come together and trust one another - with very high stakes, indeed.
What I mean by "moral courage" is that you need to be trustworthy when it comes to understanding the core right and wrong of your work. What's more, you must summon and display the courage to speak out and act accordingly. No one expects you to be perfect; however, you can move dependably towards "more courageous than before" in your collaborative work, not less. And you can ensure your colleagues trust you to encourage them, not judge them, as they move along their own courage curves.
I confess that I am a deeply flawed work in progress here. So, I speak to you from a place of introspection, as well as observation of things that are happening in the communities I am a part of. I also see this dynamic through my coaching work with various organizations, as I become exposed to their collaborative dynamics. Everyone must do the foundational work of matching deep respect with candor, integrity, and moral courage.
A final thought: Most of us understand that, if we want to do anything meaningful, we must at some point inhabit mental/emotional spaces that are uncomfortable. In fact, discomfort is a necessary part of creative process, whether it’s artistic creativity, professional creativity, creating change in communities.
Building trust purposefully will give the inevitable difficulties of that process the space they need for airing out. This effort is paramount, if you really want to get the work done and create something that matters.