Trust and Empathy

I often listen to podcasts when I fly commercial, as I’m not really one for conversations with the stranger sitting next to me on a long flight.  One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s Ted Radio Hour, which weaves together clips from several Ted Talks and interviews with the speakers on a given topic.  On one flight, flying from Tucson to Boise on a roundabout itinerary that took me through Portland – gotta love early-morning cancellations – I found myself listening to a show entitled “Trust and Consequences,” and finding lots of ideas that fit in well with fire culture.

Trust, especially in the fire world, is an important, and often elusive thing.  We know that trust is at the core of human interactions, and in relatively high-risk environments is even more critical to success, as a leader or a follower.  We’ve all been there, the follower who couldn’t trust leadership, the leader who couldn’t trust certain followers, or just the worker who couldn’t trust those around us, for whatever reasons.  It’s not fun, it’s not good for individuals or groups, and it certainly kills productivity and effectiveness.

Building trust is an interesting subject.  What I notice most about how my organization builds trust is how aside from a few “trust building exercises” that involve trust falls, rope courses, and the like, we really don’t talk about much else we can do to build trust within a group.

There’s often talk within the group about earning trust, most typically expressed by a leader or follower saying “you’ve got to earn my trust.”  But what exactly does that mean?  How do I earn the trust of those around me?  For that matter, what exactly is trust?

Enter author and speaker Simon Sinek.  In his section of this Ted Radio Hour, he talks about a few things that really grabbed my attention.

He defines trust as “feeling safe” with those around you, and he calls it the “foundation of leadership.”  I have to say that I agree… If we feel “safe” in our organization, that is to say there’s trust, we’re more likely to take risks, to explore new ideas and ways of doing business, and work on self-development.  Anytime we put ourselves out there, volunteering for an assignment, taking on new responsibilities, or learning new skills, we’re taking on additional risks.  Trust is a tool that allows us to safely take those risks.

Another of Sinek’s ideas that I really latched onto was the idea that while trust is often about actions, simply doing what you say you’ll do isn’t really as big of a trust builder as it would seem to be.  While honoring your word and doing what you say you’ll do is a hugely important part of leadership, doing so doesn’t necessarily make you more trustworthy, it merely makes you reliable, says Sinek.  And while in an operational sense reliability is good, it’s not the whole story when trust is involved.

Sinek advances the idea that trust, between humans, is often built primarily on empathy, that is, being able to understand and share the feelings of another.  Now, before I get accused of getting too “touchy-feely” or saying we all need to be “care bears,” think about it a bit.  I know from my experience that the leaders and coworkers I’ve trusted the most understood the people around them, and often acted with the best interests of the group, personally and collectively, in mind.  In his book “One Bullet Away,” former Marine Officer Nathaniel Fick talks about being taught a similar idea in his initial training – “Know your men and look out for their welfare….  They’ll follow you through the gates of hell if they trust you truly care about them.”

That last sentence leads to another point that Sinek makes about trust…  You can build trust by first giving trust to others.  In the Ted Talk he explains that at a very basic level, if a leader – or follower – expresses empathy first, the natural human response is to trust and cooperate.  While trust is often more complicated than that once we factor in many interactions over time, the concept often proves true when we initially meet someone.  Think about walking in to an operations briefing on a large fire where you don’t know anyone… If your supervisor on the fire initially extends trust to you, you’re probably more likely to trust in return, and cooperate more than if you’re initially not trusted.  I know I certainly trust and cooperate more when I’m extended that courtesy, and I work hard every day to approach my interactions with people in that fashion – I’ll choose to trust you until you show me that I can’t.

The final point that Sinek makes is that there is no formula to building trust, it just kind of happens.  It’s a complex and dynamic thing, as just about everything is when you take human behavior into account.  We’re not rational beings, no matter how hard we work to convince ourselves of that, and that irrational nature means that trust isn’t something that can be built following a 5-step process… it’s more free-flowing, more organic.

What I took away from listening to the podcast, and then thinking about more as I wrote this blog, is that trust is a core element of leadership.  As leaders and followers, we should strive to develop trust in our organizations as best we can, because where there’s trust, there’s open and honest communication, cohesion, creativity, and most importantly, mutual respect.

You don’t have to like someone to trust them, although that doesn’t hurt.  You don’t have to have a great personal relationship with them, but you do have to work to create trust and respect on a professional level.  The bottom line, for me at least, is that trust is a two way street, as the saying goes, and that we can greatly influence and improve trust if we take that first action.

It’s not difficult, really, to express empathy in our daily interactions with others.  It’s mainly about being civil to the people around us, which basically means don’t be a jerk.  That’s it, really.  Don’t be a jerk, and you’re well on your way to building trust, and being a better leader and follower.

Until next time…


About Justin Vernon

I'm an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.
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