Trust in Trust: A Business Imperative

With trust being so critical for personal and organizational success, how do we develop it?

rock climbing
Andrey Bandurenko/

While carefully transitioning my weight from one foothold to another, high on the granite wall of the Stawamus Chief, I quickly glance down to my climbing partner, Peter. I'm feeling uncertain about my next step. If my foot pops, I'll be sent soaring into space. I want him to be ready to catch me.

As I climb, Peter feeds out the rope through a special device attached to his harness. If I fall, the rope will be held in this device and Peter will catch me. The rope between us is literally my lifeline.

I commit fully to my next move and slowly grasp the sharp crystalline feature until it becomes firm in my hand. After I'm safely on the ledge, I take a deep breath. My heart still pounds as I stare out at the vast expanse of the Squamish Valley. It stares back at me in cold silence, apathetic to the game of trust that Peter and I play.

Trust is not only the foundation in climbing but also in business. It should be the foundation in all that we do — without it, we'd go nowhere.

Studies show that employees working in high-trust companies perform better than in low-trust companies. They collaborate better and are more productive. The same research shows that the benefits of a high-trust environment extend to well-being. Employees report that they experience less chronic stress and generally feel better about life. Just like the trust built between climbers, the trust created in the workplace produces better outcomes for both short-term performance and long-term sustainability.

So, with trust being so critical for personal and organizational success, how do we develop it?

Drawing upon my experience in adventure and business, I have learned that building trust in the adventure world translates directly to that of the business world. Here are three critical steps I recommend taking to build trust in the workplace (and in the mountains):

Build Strong Relationships

As a climber or business professional, your relationship with your teammate is critical. You don't have to be best friends with your teammates, but you do have to care about them and have the confidence that they care about you. I find that when people care about their teammates, they're far more likely to make the discretionary effort to succeed. They don't want to let their teammates down.

Build strong relationships with your team. Be curious and ask questions. Understand their strengths and passions and learn what motivates them. Building strong relationships will help build trust.

Be Vulnerable

Scrambling across a rock face hundreds of feet in the air quickly encourages openness about fear and vulnerability among teammates. At the workplace, such openness can often be harder to obtain.

A big misconception among leaders is that showing vulnerability is showing weakness when the opposite is true. Being secure enough in yourself as a leader to ask others for help enhances empathy and connection with them. Asking for help taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others. I find that the ability to be vulnerable is a sign of a secure leader who engages everyone to achieve success.

Create a Common Goal

Working together to achieve a common goal can help align people's behaviors to achieve a shared outcome and enhance a sense of trust. For climbers, it's moving upward in the style that best suits the objective. It might be as simple as just getting to the top in any way possible, or it may involve further parameters like moving faster or using less equipment. Strategically aligning around a common goal beforehand enhances trust between partners.

The same is true in business. I find that when team members work together to reach a goal, they tend to feel part of something bigger and their behaviors align more effectively. A sense of trust takes hold as teammates battle toward the same goal. But it's critical to make the goal achievable. If the goal proves too challenging, people may give up and trust can erode.

In business, as in climbing, the cultivation of a trust environment that emphasizes psychological safety, honesty and respect is likely to produce better outcomes in both the short-term and the long-term. Trust is the foundation upon which high-performing teams and organizations grow and thrive. Embrace success and trust in trust.

The Newsweek Expert Forum is an invitation-only network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
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