The presence of trust

When this photo comes up on a screen in a collaboration workshop or in conversation as an example of trust, everyone laughs!  It is clear that those standing on their heads must trust the guy on the motorbike!

I’ve pondered about this thing we call trust.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve interrogated my own experiences as an employee, a traveller in foreign lands, a mature-aged student, a manager, a consultant, a company director, a mother, step-mother and grandmother.  I’ve asked myself ... what is trust?  Why is it so important in human relationships and human communication? How do we build it?  How do we lose it?  How do we rebuild it when it’s been lost?

Trust is the glue of individual relationships, therefore of communities, of organisations and societies. It’s what makes them tick and stick. When it is present, we are willing, even eager, to be part of a group whose purpose and values we expect to share.  We are willing to step into mutual interdependence with other people, even when we don’t know them yet or have a history with them. When trust is not present, or we need to build it from scratch with a new group, we don’t immediately engage with people we don’t know.  We wait until we are drawn in by the empathy and energy of a group. If trust doesn’t build, then early relationships may become fragmented, we feel uneasy and mistrust emerges.

So how do we build trust? The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying ‘To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust in the supermarket.’ Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of the Stephen Covey who wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) suggests that a key principle of trust is that ‘You first have to trust yourself, because trust is similar to confidence’. 

What I’ve learned is that trusting yourself is important.  You won’t be confident that others will keep their word, will be sincere and authentic, will be open and transparent, will work with you productively, if you know you don’t behave like that yourself.  Behaviour comes from personal values, so holding values such as integrity, dependability, openness, fairness and equity and recognising their importance in relationships, will help each of us act in a way that encourages others to trust us.

Recently being asked to design and run a program for a client whose staff will need to do their work in fire-ravaged, damaged and traumatised communities, has reminded me about the importance of empathy as part of building trust.  If we are to communicate effectively with people, we must start by listening ... not just hearing, but actively listening to understand.  ‘Walking in other people’s shoes’ for a little while helps build trust, and by doing so we can better understand and empathise with their situation.  In short, we need to build trusting relationships before trying to help, or transacting.

Finally, a key component of trust is the ability always to be your authentic self. Someone who never admits mistakes or shares their human side, rarely hears truth from others. If you are able to admit being wrong, to acknowledge and apologise for errors or mistakes when they happen, to admit to being unsure or not knowing and to ask for help, this very vulnerability will help others to trust.

Trust is the core of a group or team’s capability to collaborate. It’s worth the effort of building trust within any group of collaborators, starting with trusting yourself to do so, because trust is the glue that keeps the collaborators collaborating.    

Making Every Drop Count

In March 2018 the UN HLPW published Every Drop Counts: An Agenda for Water Action. It makes a number of clear recommendations about the future of the water sector internationally. My question is, does the sector as a whole have the requisite mindset and capabilities to put those recommendations into practice.

In particular, does the sector have what it takes to successfully integrate planning across water systems?

Here’s why this question is on my mind: The report notes that water needs to be managed as a system – usually as a basin, sub-basin or aquifer - and that water system boundaries tend not to correlate with political or administrative boundaries. In this context it makes the recommendation that the industry “implement integrated approaches to water management at local, national and transboundary levels…”

Having spent much of the past several years supporting water planners to do just that I’m concerned that the drive to do more integrated water management is outpacing the capacity of organisations to build the appropriate skills in their workforce.

Water professionals are highly capable with enormous expertise. Yet this deep well of capability tends to be about the technical challenges of water management, such as the impact of nitrogen on water quality. This expertise is less helpful when tackling transboundary integrated water governance.

To meet the challenge posed by Making Every Drop Count, planners will face more complex questions such as:

  • How to build trust across different groups
  • How to shift from a solution to a problem orientation
  • How to make progress in the face of great uncertainty
  • How to learn with your stakeholders, rather than provide answers to them

These are tough things for experts to do, and not things they’ve learned at school.

In my experience, successful integration of water planning across boundaries requires individuals, teams and organisations to grapple with different questions, such as:

  • How do we deal with complex situations like this?
  • What gets in the way of working with ‘others’?
  • What is involved in thinking and acting differently, more collaboratively?
  • How do we need to think and act in order to ensure others really own the plan?
  • How can I lead when I don’t have the answers?

These questions, and others like them, look straightforward on the page, but having worked closely with water planners to support them to build their capability in these areas, I have learned not to underestimate the struggle involved. Business as usual emits a powerful force that continues to suck people back into old habits and existing comfort zones.

So, the need to integrate water planning at multiple levels is critical. Most water planners know this. It is now time for their organisations to recognise that success requires an additional suite of skills and a real investment in their people.

Only that way can we make every drop count.