Is trust earned or granted?

by Lyssa Adkins on March 31, 2011

I’m recalling the first moments I trusted my daughter, then a toddler.  She certainly did nothing to earn my trust up to that point, yet I still granted her trust.  Albeit on a small basis…I trusted her to stay put while I ran to the next room to get something.  I trusted her to not draw on the walls of her room while I grabbed a quick shower.  And, as time went on, I trusted her more and more and gave her more freedom.  Even though she occasionally drew on the walls and worse as she got older.  Over time, she has earned my trust – and shaken it – so I grant it again, a little and then more and more until I feel she’s earned it again – and then she shakes it again – rinse, repeat.  I see the pattern of granting and earning, and yet I am drawn to those first moments of granting her trust.  Why is it that I was willing to do that, even though nothing in my experience with her would have said that was a good bet?  At age two, I can tell you it was certainly NOT a good bet.  Yet, I did it.

I think it’s because I am, above all, interested in growing a human being.  Not just any human being, but a glorious human being.  One who gives as much as she takes, improves the world and enjoys her life fully.  So, if you’re interested in growing a glorious human being, do you need to grant trust first?   I think so.  If you’re interested in growing a glorious agilist, do you need to grant trust first?  I think so.

What got me thinking about this subject was some work I was fortunate to do with Tobias Mayer and one of his clients recently, where I read this:

Trust — lead from a place of faith, not suspicion; follow likewise

Lead from a place of faith, not suspicion.  That’s what I was doing with my daughter.  And that’s what I believe agile coaches must do with everyone they coach.  More than that — I believe agile coaches must exemplify granting trust from a place of faith first and also exemplify recovering when trust has been shaken.  Why?  It’s part of an agile coach’s job to build a culture that has people thrive.  This is part of it.

Just allow yourself to imagine for a minute…What would it be like if everyone on the team and in the organization, at large, held this value of trust just as it is stated here?  Imagine what kind of team that would create, what kind of creativity that would unlock and what kind of results would follow.  I see an amazing view from this vantage point.

Trust is just one of five values articulated succinctly and beautifully by Tobias Mayer as part of his Business Craftsmanship work.  As an agile coach, I first ask myself, “How am I doing living these values?”  and then I make them a part of my conscious life (so I can be better at them) while I also introduce them to the people and teams I coach.   Because the view from here is just too good to pass up.

{ 1 trackback }

Teams and Trusting Like a Fool « Twingle
April 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Walter Ariel Risi April 19, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Hi Lyssa,

What an inspiring post! I quite agree on the importance of trust not only in a coach / coachee relationship, but also in employer / employee, client / vendor / consultant, etc, relationships. Trust is the most cost effective way of doing business! After all, you need less control over something you trust.

IMHO, we’re suffering from a great “trust crisis”, that is, trust becoming a rare asset in several corporations. What an oxymoron that several of these corporations are trying to implement agility in an atmosphere filled with intrigue and mistrust!

It is very much up to coaches (I mean Scrum both coaches or other kind of organizational coaches) to help raise conscience on the importance of trust … not only to create better work environments, but also to save money often spent in controlling people who otherwise could be just trusted!


Sigi Kaltenecker April 11, 2011 at 10:01 am

Hi Lyssa,
Although I´m not sure if family and business systems are easily comparable, I do agree that granting trust first is:
* inevitable, perhaps a little bit like bringing out the seed in order to help people grow;
* an essential part of what you convincigly describe as “acting as a role model”;
* rather a general attitude than a specific technique
* a complex phenomenon, nevertheless, as we did discover in our workshop at the Scrum Gathering in Amsterdam and the following attempt to distill a kind o recipe…

Ted Gaydos April 5, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Another simple and powerful observation that most people would agree is correct. The disconnect is how some can not apply these ideals in life to business. Where does this first occur? Is it from college or high school or earlier? Why is it when we “Waste” other people’s time, it is a problem? But, if it is not on the clock, then the basics of respecting others are back in play.

In one business I was attached with a great group of people that understood this ideal and others listed on Tobias’ site. The simple fact is we respected each other as people, not coworkers. We were not aware of anything special, just that was how we worked. When a new person started, there was a basic one on one training period. Then as time progressed the mentor would slowly step back and let that person grow in ability. I would compare the efforts to learning to ride a bike and getting your training wheels off. Or, something similar to a master and apprentice relationship. I do not know if the conditions forced this style because it was a small group that needed to get work done. Or was it caused by everyone just being respectful and trusting people?

Now not to say this style did not have problems. People would make mistakes in the beginning and over time. The rate of mistakes would go down as time progressed. But, there was no fear in making a mistake. Again, going back to “Wasting” someone’s time, mistakes are bad!!

It is a simple lack of trust and by extension a need to assign blame for mistakes that hold most people from reaching their full potential in their work. And that lack of trust breeds a state of fear among everyone in a team or on a project. The amount of time I see actually wasted in CYA (Cover You Ass) work in these places is, to me, extreme. All because of a fear of being assigned blame because there is no trust.

Anyway, in closing, I will leave with a great quote by Alexander Pope:
“To err is Human, to forgive Divine.”

Olaf Lewitz April 1, 2011 at 1:32 am

Brilliant. And much needed.
Thanks, Lyssa, for the post, and all others for enhancing comments!
Take care

YvesHanoulle March 31, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Patrick Debois (inventor of the term Devops & one of the leading Belgium agilists ) has a nice presentation about trust with a great quote.
“We judge others by their behavior, we judge ourselves by our intentions”

Morgan Ahlström March 31, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Beautiful post Lyssa. I wrote something on the same note about a year ago ( My main point was that people tend to live up to the expectations that we have on them. Acting in a non-trusting way will foster a non-trusting behavior so in order to get to trust we need to start with trust. What I really liked about your post though was the way you put this into a simple(?) action; “lead from a place of faith”. I think that’s where we all will need to start.

YvesHanoulle March 31, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I can not agree more.
I tell similar stories about trust. [1]
I think that as long as leaders don’t trust a team, not much agile work can be done.

@Tobias. I agree with you. Every book about trust says the same. Trust is given not earned. We have tons of studies that prove that. Some people don’t believe it. Because it is a self fulfilling prophecy.
When I trust you or if I don’t trust you, in either case I will be right.

It’s actually in the definition. If you have proven that I can trust you. It’s not trust.
I know my kids can walk. I don’t need trust to let them walk at home.

And yes, like Lyssa says, baby steps help to create trust for both parties.
(If you trust me on something too big and I don’t trust myself, it might hurt me.)


Lisa Crispin March 31, 2011 at 1:05 pm

What an interesting post! I’ve always known trust is the key to being able to make a cultural change as well as the process/practice changes we have to make to become a successful (agile) team. I know our team has to earn or at least validate trust by doing our best work and keeping our business folks informed of what we will deliver so there are no unpleasant surprises. And I know our developers had to learn to trust the business when it said “we want you to deliver the highest quality product, we don’t care how fast you do it or how much you do each sprint.”

Maybe some of it is not only the granting of trust, but the ability to believe that someone is trusting you?

I like the child-rearing metaphor. I don’t have kids, but I have learned about trust from my donkeys. Donkeys are not like horses, they can’t be bribed or bullied into doing things. They need to completely trust you, and believe that you love them. I think people are not so different!

David Swinson March 31, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Yes, excellent post, and like Toby said, great analogy with respect to raising your daughter.

Tobias Mayer March 31, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Thanks for the references, Lyssa. This is a great post, and I like the analogy with raising your daughter. Peter Block talks about how the paternalistic cultures we create in our corporations will forever keep employees as children. And yet real parenthood is actually about letting go, as you describe. The healthiest children in the world are the ones who are slowly released, not held onto, not controlled, directed, punished, given responsibility rather than mindlessly being “held accountable”. I doubt there is a psychologist in the world today that would disagree with this. And yet there go our corporations, blind to social science, insisting that people cannot, must not be trusted until they have proven themselves, inventing all sorts of controls, measure, rewards and punishments to coerce people into “being trustworthy”. Oh, the irony! What can I prove to you while you keep me in shackles?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: