Contributed Column

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

High-trust professional relationships

A feral cat has taken up residence under our house. She’s a pretty little cat: tortoiseshell with white feet and stunning green eyes, but clearly undernourished. I hope she may begin to trust me more, but realize she will never be entirely comfortable around me because after about the age of 6 months, cats are very difficult to socialize. That said, I’m still giving it a go.

I mention this because my interaction with our little visitor has caused me to think about what it takes to develop high-trust professional relationships. Cats and people are different, but there are some common approaches that enhance trust levels in both.

The ability to develop high-trust professional relationships quickly and reliably may not be a topic you have thought about much. It’s something we often take for granted. Presumably, when we were young, we learned to get along with other people.

Nevertheless, a lot of my consulting work involves interventions in which there is a lack of high trust amongst professionals. Sometimes there is chronic friction, or even outright hostility. Other times, people avoid contact with each other and limit their communication to terse emails. Additional “symptoms” can include low morale, high turnover, failure to share necessary information, hoarding work, and poor client interactions. The symptoms are varied, but ultimately it’s about low trust.

Here’s what I’ve noticed fosters high-trust relationships: interaction, disclosure, flexibility, consistency, and good intentions.

Interaction that creates these relationships is that which occurs appropriately and frequently and is of a high quality. The highest quality interactions are, of course, face-to-face, as these involve not only verbal content, but also facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. You need to invest ongoing time and energy to build high trust.

An excellent way to erode trust is to fail to share critical information with someone else who is then surprised to learn this information indirectly. If you disclose appropriate information with others and explain how it impacts them, you are building a high-trust relationship.

Flexibility that develops high trust means being open-minded when you collaborate, and acknowledging that you can accomplish things in various ways. You don’t need to compromise excellence, but truly, many roads do lead to Rome.

If we are greeted with love and support on one occasion and then inexplicably experience anger and rejection, we develop low levels of trust. It’s important to be consistent in your relationships with other people and to do so over time. Building trust is cumulative and iterative.

Interaction, disclosure, flexibility, and consistency will not by themselves result in a high-trust professional relationship unless good intentions are part of the mix. You must genuinely seek positive outcomes, want to support the success of others, and be a good team player.

Trust can be destroyed quickly and abruptly. Conversely, building a high-trust relationship usually occurs slowly and incrementally, based on multiple small and seemingly inconsequential interactions. When you’re doing this, you will find that the quality of your communication, your ability to collaborate with others, and the ease that you experience in your work with clients and colleagues will increase gradually over time.

Clearly, it’s important to get along well with the people with whom you work. Consistently successful professionals do this and they make it look easy. They know what they need to know to get things done, they share that information appropriately with others, their colleagues seek their advice on important matters, and they apparently navigate their professional (and likely personal) lives with less friction.

How might you change the ways you interact with others to enhance trust levels? Start making small adjustments, such as communicating more frequently face-to-face, keeping people more fully informed, being more open-minded about how things get done, checking your own good intentions, and doing all of this regularly. Develop good new habits. Take a leadership role. Notice how others respond. And celebrate success. •

Emily Morrow ( of Shelburne, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives and HR personnel.

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