The “Credibility Crisis” — Is Trust Possible Across Government Branches (and Agencies)?


The recently proclaimed “credibility crisis” has been growing for years — and in many areas.  At the highest level of government, members of the Executive branch don’t trust members of Congress.  Democrats and Republicans (as groups) clearly don’t trust one another.  The Judicial branch is sometimes accused of political biases.  When agencies have to share information with one another or work collaboratively, the absence of trust is evident — as displayed by suspicion, defensiveness, and not sharing information.

Trust is a key factor in successful work-based relationships and has been cited as one of the key elements of effective leadership. Without relationships rooted in trust,  life becomes difficult: effective teamwork is undermined, clear communication becomes challenging, and conflict increases.

But how do you build trust with those who are just getting to know you (and you, them)?

Understanding the Nature of Trust

In order to build trust in relationships, you must first understand what trust is comprised of.  What are the basic components of trust?

The Three C’s of Trust

Competence – To build trust with a co-worker, you must believe in their competence to complete the task you are expecting them to do.  If they do not have the ability (or you do not believe they do), you will either not trust them to complete the task, or your trust will be misplaced and they will disappoint you.

Consistency — Some people have the ability to accomplish the task but for a variety of reasons they do not do so consistently.  Whether they are unprepared, have not completed the task by the agreed upon date, or the quality of their work varies significantly from time to time, they demonstrate that they are not reliable. That said, most of us are not willing to place our trust (and our own reputation with others) on undependable people.

Character – An individual’s character is also a key component of trust in a relationship.  Specifically, they need to be honest in their communication, and have consistency between  their words and actions. This last point is critical in work relationships.  While we know and expect a colleague to make choices that are good for themselves, they should also consider what is good for everyone else as well, including the constituency they serve.

Trust is Not “All or None”

The way we talk about life frames our perception of reality.  For example, how we view a person and how we react to them can be influenced by the terms we use to describe them. For example, we may describe one person as ‘determined’, but another as ‘stubborn’ – even though their actions may actually be the same.

The same is true for trust.  How we talk about trust influences our reactions to others. If we say, “I don’t trust Shelly”, we essentially have made a blanket statement that infers “I can’t Shelly to do anything correctly in any situation” (which is probably not true.)  Trust, however, is actually situation specific.  You may not trust Shelly to get her report completed and turned in on time (possibly based on prior experience).  But you may trust her to be able to drive you to the airport successfully.  (So, in fact, you do trust her — but just for that specific task.)  The fact that trust can be (and should be) defined by the specifics of a  situation provides the opportunity and pathway for building trust with others.

Steps to Building Trust with Others

When someone is just getting to know us in a work-based relationship, there is reason to be cautious, and trust is not automatic. It makes sense that we have to earn their trust.  The exception to this is when we have been referred to them and their trust in us is based on the referral’s trustworthiness.

Initial Steps

  • Acknowledge that your new colleagues don’t know your capabilities to complete the task successfully and it is reasonable to be cautious initially.
  • Affirm your trustworthiness to them. Show them you know what you are doing and can complete the task you are committed to doing in the time frame that they need and in the manner they desire.
  • Frame out the task they want accomplished.  Design the project and clarify the goals, expectations and completion date.
  • Consider breaking the task into smaller pieces so you can demonstrate your trustworthiness in smaller steps, especially in a new relationship.  The other person may be hesitant to trust you for the whole project and agreeing to a smaller initial phase with subsequent steps may make them more comfortable.
  • Do the job well, on time, and in the way they expect.  In fact, when possible, this is a great time to exceed their expectations—either in quality or completing the task ahead of time.

Expanding Your Trust in Relationships

Working through these steps establishes a trusting relationship with your colleagues, supervisor or clients.  Remember, their trust is only related to this specific project.  The way to build trust in a relationship is to repeat this pattern for different tasks and demonstrate your various skills, reliability over time and commitment to do what is best for them. Eventually, you can become a trusted and valued colleague.

Dr. Paul White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Trust is critical to all that we do in public service. The deterioration of trust, and the rise in very good reasons to withdraw trust, is seen in many countries. Thanks for a thoughtful approach to building trust.