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The Simple Equation Every Manager Needs To Build (Or Repair) Trust

A tech veteran who’s worked at eBay, SurveyMonkey, and TaskRabbit explains how trust breaks down on startup teams–and what it takes to fix it.

The Simple Equation Every Manager Needs To Build (Or Repair) Trust
[Photo: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash]

Anne Raimondi was stumped. Two people she managed weren’t getting along, and it was really impacting progress. In her private conversations with each of them, they had the same goals and wanted the same things. But in the room together, they’d disagree on everything. They’d quibble over the smallest things, avoid spending time together, and jump to assuming the worst about each other, even though they were ultimately on the same team.

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Raimondi–who today has an all-star track record, including director of product at eBay, VP marketing at SurveyMonkey, CRO at TaskRabbit, SVP operations at Zendesk, and COO at Earnin–didn’t know what to do, so she asked her executive coach, who stated the problem simply: They don’t trust each other.

“Immediately, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, of course, that’s absolutely it.’ It brought everything into focus,” she says. To move toward a solution, she recalled a book she’d discovered years prior called The Trust Equation by Steven Drozdeck and Lyn Fisher, first published in 2003, which offers the following equation for how humans determine who and how much to trust:

Essentially, the amount you trust someone is the sum of how credible you believe they are on a subject, how reliable they’ve proven themselves to be over time, and how authentic you think they are as a person, divided by how much you think they’re acting in their own self interest. Looking at her colleagues’ relationship through this lens, Raimondi helped them diagnose when and how trust had eroded, and eventually work with them to heal the rift.

Since then, she’s thought a lot about applying the Trust Equation at technology startups in particular, where trust is non-optional. Not only can distrust between cofounders be fatal, but the terrain at startups changes rapidly, people move into new roles and challenges, and at a certain point there’s an influx of new people. There’s no time to doubt or be doubted–and this equation can help.

Raimondi, who’s now a regular instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says she’s seen it applied to fix big problems before they start. And it begins by understanding how everyone on a given team measures up according to each of the equation’s key variables.

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Credibility

You’ll find someone credible if they seem to have the knowledge, experience, and familiarity to perform a particular role well. It’s best indicated by past roles, lessons learned, the insights they offer and the terminology they use. Credibility is something people have in a particular role, in a particular setting, at a particular time.

Where it breaks at startups:

  • When people move into new roles within an organization or inherit teams of people to manage.
  • Whenever anyone is doing something they’ve never done before, or figuring out something unprecedented.
  • When someone who was just a great engineer, designer, marketer, etc. is suddenly promoted to manage people, which requires talent at leadership and handling people issues. This, especially, can lead to a lot of issues when people don’t trust their managers.

“People try to scale as fast as their company, which can damage their credibility if they don’t pay attention,” says Raimondi. “If you’re on this trajectory, you need to proactively re-establish your credibility at every stop along the way. If you find yourself doubting leadership, consider whether there’s a credibility gap at play. What could they do to prove their credibility to you?”

Anne Raimondi

What to do about it: Don’t let questions of credibility linger. If you truly are new at doing something, be patient. In the meantime, lean hard on your reliability and authenticity. “Keep your commitments, hit deadlines, and don’t hide what you don’t know how to do or fake confidence,” she says. “Also, make it visible what you’re doing to gain credibility, whether that’s reading on the subject matter, getting a coach, or applying feedback you’ve gotten. Show people you’re actively closing the delta.”

A big part of this is asking the people around you to understand what matters to them, how they want to work with you, what they expect from you, and what they want to make happen. If you’ve inherited a team, ask questions about what they wish had been different in the past. What gaps existed? What would they like to see change? Asking open-ended questions can turn people’s doubt about your abilities into excitement about what you’ll do that’s new.

“Call a meeting with everyone you talked to and say, ‘I’ve gotten input from all of you, so it’s clear what we want to preserve, and the two or three things you all want to see changed, here’s how I’ll be making that a priority’,” says Raimondi. “If you’ve been put in charge of a team because leadership wanted to go in a new direction, be really transparent about that and how the change was made. Don’t let people make up their own stories. Get ahead of it with something like: ‘I was brought in so we could hit X milestone with a different approach, and I have X expertise they thought would be helpful’.”

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Conversely, if lack of credibility is the reason you’re doubting someone, gently broach the subject in a one-on-one: “How are you making decisions? What experience are you applying in this situation? How are you learning in this area?” And, she says, don’t forget to ask, “How can I help you?” Often, you’ll find that people have more credibility than you assume based on their background.

Reliability

You’ll find someone reliable if they do what they say they’re going to do. You feel like anything you assign them is as good as done. They hold themselves accountable for things when they go well and when they go wrong. They learn from and clean up their mistakes. They’re consistent in behavior, responsiveness, and quality of work.

Someone can be extremely smart, knowledgeable, and a joy to be around, but if they don’t deliver on time or to the standard expected, they’ll lose trust quickly.

Where it breaks at startups:

  • Leaders don’t have time to double-check work, so everyone needs to be able to carry the ball and make good decisions on their own. This doesn’t always happen.
  • Missed deadlines have a resounding impact on whether a startup succeeds or not. At large companies, reliability is often buffered. More people are around to catch you when you fall, deadlines and goal posts can be moved. This is not the case on small teams.
  • Many early employees aren’t as bought in as the founders, or don’t think working at a startup should be any different from another job, so they aren’t there when they’re needed.
  • A lot of early team members are single points of failure for their job functions. If they weren’t there, it wouldn’t happen, so they can’t miss.

What to do about it: When reliability breaks down, it’s important to address it immediately. Don’t let more than two projects go by without a conversation. In this talk, you want to:

  1. Establish that your expectations were aligned at the start;
  2. Explain the impact on the team/goal (not just on you); and,
  3. Ideate with them about how to do things differently the next time.

Do this without using accusatory “you” language. Here’s an example:

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Hey, I wanted to chat about how we shipped that product a bit later than expected. Was your expectation also that it would go out on March 15? I wanted to chat, because missing that date meant that a few of the engineers had to work over the weekend, and I thought we could ideate a bit about how to course correct and make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.

In the course of these conversations, you might discover there was a bigger blocker or systemic issue that led to the deadline being missed–maybe it’s not the other person’s fault after all, and you just unearthed something more important to fix. Don’t let blame blind you to these possibilities. “In the end, most reliability issues between people can be boiled down to poor communication, which is easily fixed,” says Raimondi.

Authenticity

This remains a nebulous term, and is often overthought. What it really means in practice is: How easy is it to get to know the person? Is it clear what they care about, what matters to them, and what motivates them? Authentic people don’t need to always be polished, or know the answer, or be perfect. They do and say what they mean.

Where it breaks at startups:

  • Failure is incredibly common at startups, but people don’t want to admit they failed or made a mistake because it will damage their credibility.
  • Founders have an idealized view of their companies, and are so practiced at telling its story, that they come across as scripted, contrived, inauthentic. This happens with both fundraising and recruiting and is something to watch out for.
  • More people try to project confidence even though they’re inexperienced, which can sow distrust.
  • Company culture doesn’t allow for authentic expressions of anger, displeasure, or sadness–which pushes it underground where it can be more corrosive.

What to do about it: Really think about how easy it is for your colleagues to get to know you. This doesn’t mean giving them access to your entire personal life, or mean you have to tell them everything about you. Rather, do you respond in ways that align with how you truly think and feel? Do your reactions in the workplace match your reactions outside? Do you share enough about what matters to you and what motivates you with your colleagues? If not, why? There might be room to be more authentic on the job, so that people aren’t left guessing or assuming how you feel, what you think, what you’ll do.

If you feel like someone is being inauthentic with you, you should talk about it. You don’t have to accuse them directly, but rather say: “I wouldn’t have assumed you’d do or say X or Y. Can you tell me more about why you did?” Be willing to be authentic with them, share what you’re excited about at the company and what you worry about. Ask them to do the same in return. Having the wrong expectations about someone can sometimes masquerade as them seeming inauthentic, so check your own assumptions first. How valid are they, really?

Perhaps the best way to be authentic? Stay in consistent, responsive communication. (This also helps with reliability and credibility.) The prime example here is a founder wanting to maintain the trust of their board and investors. Holding yourself to a schedule for sending weekly company updates and materials (before meetings) and recaps (right after) will enhance your authenticity as a leader. Your stakeholders will know what’s top of mind for you and why at every beat along the way, and they’ll trust you’re on top of things. The same goes for your employees–overcommunicate to bring them along with you.

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Don’t wait to share bad news or ask for help. Don’t surprise people with decisions or problems out of the blue. This will not only make them think less of you in the moment–they also won’t trust you as much going forward, because who knows what you might be hiding or what’s really going on. “I learned this the hard way,” says Raimondi. “Instead of being open about what I was worried about, I thought I could work through all the issues myself and then share my solution. The end result was that people who were important to me felt out of the loop and blindsided.”

A good approach, says Raimondi, is one CEO she knows who sends weekly updates to his board like clockwork. Even if they’re tiny, they provide much-appreciated connective tissue between them and the company. He also uses it as an opportunity to share a few personal updates from him and his team, and to congratulate board members on important personal developments like anniversaries, birthdays, etc. This helps them acknowledge and feel like they know each other even better as people, not just colleagues. It paints a fuller picture of what matters to all of them inside and outside the office.

Providing time and space for social gatherings at work is crucial. When people feel like they truly know each other, they trust each other more. Hosting team lunches, celebrating baby showers, and letting people share what they value in their personal lives makes a distinct difference. One leader Raimondi admires kicks off team meetings with personal announcements accompanied by photos from employees’ recent travel or of a baby’s first steps. All of this might sound like a nice-to-have, but it serves an important function.

Perception Of Self-Interest

Does someone seem to be acting only for themselves? Maybe it’s to get credit or hit a deadline, to look good or to make more money or close a deal or get more headcount. Note that this variable is more about optics. Even if you’re not acting selfishly, it might still appear that you are to others, so you need to be intentional about what you project.

The greater the perception of self interest, the lower the trust between people. Alternatively, the more someone appears to be doing work for the benefit of the team, end user, or a higher goal, the easier it is to trust them.

Where it breaks at startups:

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  • For founders, their company is their baby. They end up getting a lion’s share of credit even though early employees are often working just as hard. It’s particularly important for them to defray the perception of self-interest.
  • Startups are often running so fast, that they forget the importance of passing credit around and acknowledging everyone’s wins along the way.
  • When sales is added to your organization, this will inevitably come up. Anyone who makes money based on commission has assumed self-interest.
  • The bigger your team gets, the more often people have their own agendas, the more they’re posturing for visibility, promotions, and important projects.
  • Executives jockey for position, and politics emerge. Companies should anticipate this to achieve healthy growth. “Politics can damage companies more than anything else,” says Raimondi. “And nothing breeds politics faster than when people appear to be out for themselves–taking credit, fighting for executive attention, pushing for more money and status.”

What to do about it: To anticipate and prevent these cracks from forming, anyone who might be perceived this way should first be aware of it and then be proactive about generously giving credit to others (in a genuine way), using collective language like ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our’ to make it clear they’re thinking of the team, and repeating commitments to shared goals and priorities: like doing better by end users, hitting company-wide metrics, etc.

Founders in particular need to keep these tactics top of mind. Given the amount of coverage and glory lavished on entrepreneurs, their employees can feel left behind unless they go above and beyond to highlight others, spread credit around, and give away the spotlight–including inviting others to board meetings to present on their area of expertise, and to speak at conferences and to the press.

As companies get larger, Raimondi points out, tribalism takes root and functional areas can start to distrust each other, i.e. “Marketing won’t let us do that” or, “We have to do all this work for the folks in Legal.” Nip this in the bud by solidifying trust between heads of departments that work together — they’ll model behavior others will follow. If a rift emerges, use the equation to help them resolve it.

Whenever trust starts to fade because of self interest, immediately run the exercise of identifying common goals, she suggests: What’s important to you that’s also important to that other person? What are you both working toward? Get things back on track by connecting everyday work and decision making to those things.


A version of this article originally appeared on First Round Review. It is adapted with permission.

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