The Anatomy of Trust

On 11 June, 2014 in Human Resources by Rosie Overfield

The Anatomy of Trust

Trust:  noun: firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something – “relations have to be built on trust” ~ Merriam Webster Dictionary

The development of trust is an essential veterinary practice tool allowing people to form productive and meaningful relationships. Trust is about relying on others to do the right thing and also believing in another’s integrity, commitment and strength. Trust is essential to an effective veterinary team because it provides a sense of safety. When your team members feel safe with each other they feel comfortable to open up, take appropriate risks and expose vulnerabilities. Without trust there is less innovation, collaboration, creative thinking, and productivity. Without trust, veterinary professionals spend most of their time protecting themselves and their interests when they should be spent helping the group attain its goals. Trust is also essential for knowledge sharing. Politis (2003, pp. 55-66)  reasoned that trust was a key element in a team's knowledge acquisition. When veterinary teams do not trust each other, do not practice open-communication and do not know each other, they cannot share knowledge or perform.

Why is trust so difficult?

Despite the advances in human capabilities, neuroscientists tell us that our brains still give preferential attention to keeping us safe. This theory is often referred to as ‘Walk Towards-Run Away Theory’. We walk towards reward – certainty, consistency, balance, similarity. We move away from threat – avoidance of loss, risk and uncertainty (Langley, S, 2011). In other words, we minimise danger and maximise reward. This is outlined extensively in human social behaviour theories. The principle of 'Walk Towards (Reward)/Run Away (Threat) drives our emotion, thinking and self-regulation processes. At the most basic level we have a drive to first keep safe, and then seek rewards and pleasures. Practically, this is often reflected in our choice of job and the relationships we nurture. Quite simply, people like people like them. Without the facilitation of trust-building communication, activities and practices, human beings, even in teams, will play it safe and stick to what and who they know. To help create a high-performing team, all members should have a deeper understanding of each other. This involves finding similarities, sharing stories and committing to open communication.

Building trust with enhanced empathy

Emotional intelligence is tuning into both our own feelings and the feelings of those around us.  It means responding to others appropriately, with sensitivity and compassion.  Empathy is being able to see from another person’s perspective.  It’s good to acknowledge other people’s emotions ---sad, angry, ecstatic, and puzzled --- while still remembering that those are their emotions, not ours.  We should try to understand where those feelings come from, but, keep in mind that we are not responsible for them.  

Empathy begins with listening.  Chris Casper had it right when he said “Nobody in life will listen to us unless they feel we have listened to them.”  Someone who is empathetic listens and responds. They display sensitivity and concern and this makes a connection ('walk towards'!).  Those who lack empathy are more focused on their own needs and pay little or no attention to anyone else’s.  No connection is made. Being attuned to team and individual needs and emotional responses is particularly important in the veterinary industry where empathy comes into play at all levels; in reading colleagues’ cues, in working as a team from different sections (in larger vet hospitals), and in working as a team with diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences.  Empathy is the glue that will bind the group together to work successfully.

Enhance your empathy to build trust (and it doesn't cost a thing!)

Look for nonverbal cues as well as listening for verbal ones. We all should know by now that words account for only 7% of communication.  Tone and speed of speech is about 38%, while 55% is unspoken and revealed through body language --- predominantly expressions above the shoulders!  

Share and be honest about feelings.  Open communication leads to trust. The more open and willing the team is to share your feelings, the more trust and openness they will inspire in each other.  The greater the trust in a working environment, the higher the performance. In the veterinary industry we need to spend more time debriefing and communicating beyond the daily routines. Encourage your colleagues to share by normalising stress, sadness and frustration. Highly effective teams lay it all on the table and connect, not fragment, during stressful times. 

Be consistent so that spoken and unspoken messages match.  You should practice matching what you are saying and what you are doing.  This proves honesty and authenticity which builds trust.  For example, smile when you tell someone that you’re happy to see them, instead of looking away or down. If you ever want a perfect example of congruency, watch Martin Luther King during one of his speeches.

Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.  Empathy is about imagining what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Give your veterinary colleagues the benefit of the doubt and firstly assume that everyone is doing the best that they can with the resources they have. This is calmer, more helpful thinking and a great technique for building mindfulness and resilience. If you're still unsure about a person's behaviour, check in with them. Reaching out to someone without judgement builds connection and trust.

Rosie Overfield

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