Author Archive

Coordinating Action to Get Work Done Fast and Well

The cycle of commitment is a set of conversational moves intended to generate and coordinate action between people so they can quickly and effectively get work done. When people who work together use the commitment cycle language consistently it significantly increases the chance that they make strong commitments they will keep. As such it can be a powerful tool.

However, when the cycle of commitment is divorced from a shared purpose and vision, and taken out of the context of the larger network of conversations that are necessary for an organization to function it loses a great deal of its value. These include conversations to explore possibilities, make good decisions, learn, and develop resilient relationships. Without an understanding and appreciation of this using the commitment cycle simply to generate action can result in people making good commitments to do the wrong things.

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“I’m sorry…” Apologies that Rebuild Relationship and Trust

Apologizing is how we humans repair relationships and restore trust when we do something that harms others in some way. The outcome of a sincere, well-made apology is the restoration of trust and everything trust makes possible: good working relationships, innovation, collaboration, engagement, accountability, performance, and good results.

A poor apology, on the other hand, won’t make things any better, could make them worse, and might even destroy the relationship altogether. Unfortunately, when we don’t take time to think about it we can make weak, insincere or flippant apologies. “My bad.” “Sorry it upset you.” “I’m sorry, but I didn’t think it would be such a problem.”

So, in case you ever mess up and want to clean it up well…

Three Elements of an Effective Apology

What does someone who has suffered harm need in order to be willing to forgive and risk trusting you again? An acknowledgement of what you did and the harm it caused, an apology for doing it, and a promise to change.

Acknowledgement of what was done and the harm it caused. The person who was harmed wants to know you understand what you did and can see the negative effect it had on them.

Acknowledgement done well: “I didn’t manage my workload well and as a result failed to get my part of the work done by the date I committed to. I realize this will set the project back and make more work for you and the team because you have to reschedule everything. I know pushing back the delivery date makes the team look bad, too, and that it could jeopardize sales if our customers start looking for alternate suppliers.” In this acknowledgement, the person speaks to all of the fallout from what they did and owns responsibility for it. They also address the specific ways it harmed individual team members, the team as a whole, and possibly the company.

Acknowledgement done poorly: “Sorry I didn’t get this done on time. There were a lot of other things I was working on and it just fell between the cracks.” This person does acknowledge not getting the job done “on time” but doesn’t directly own responsibility and doesn’t address the harm it caused at all.

Apology for what was done. It is an expression of sincere regret for what you did (or did not do) that resulted in the harm.

Apology done well: “I am sorry I let you and the team down.” This simple, straightforward apology expresses regret for doing what they did.

Apology done poorly: “I’m sorry this is such a problem for you.” A statement like this minimizes the impact of the person’s own actions and subtly blames the person who was harmed for having a “problem.”

Promise to change so this doesn’t happen again. Perhaps the most important element of a good apology is committing to doing something different to ensure what happened is not repeated.

Promise done well: “In the future I’ll ask for help and delegate what I can when I can see I’m falling behind. I’ll also let you know if my deliverables are in danger of slipping.” This is a simple but actionable promise. Being specific about what she is going to do differently lets others know she has thought about it and has a plan. Of course, the most important thing is to follow through on what has been promised!

Promise done poorly: “I’ll do what I can, but the fact is I’ve got a lot on my plate.” Nothing is promised. It is clear this person hasn’t thought at all about what he might do differently and is excusing himself in in advance if he does the same thing again in the future.

To err is human. To acknowledge, apologize and promise to make changes when we make mistakes makes it possible to repair the damaged and rebuild trust when we do.

How often and effectively do you and others in your workplace acknowledge, apologize and promise to make changes?

By the way, this applies in all situations, not just at work.

Building Team Trust with Care

Trust is a powerful multiplier in teamwork. It is more strongly correlated with team effectiveness than factors such as team member talent, past performance or team leadership according to several studies. Simply put, strong trust greatly increases a team’s productivity, adding real value for the organization. At the same time individual team members experience the sense of satisfaction and wellbeing that comes from working with people they trust and who trust them.

Trust as the Assessment of Care

In The Thin Book of Trust We are in this together I distinguish four domains in which we make assessments about the trustworthiness of others – and others judge how trustworthy they think we are. One of those four is the domain I call Care. Care is the assessment that you have my best interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take action; that your intentions toward me are good.

Productivity, Psychological Safety and Trust

In 2012 Google launched an internal initiative, code named Project Aristotle, to figure out why some of the company’s teams struggled while others succeeded brilliantly. The researchers studied 180 Google teams, conducted 200-plus interviews, and analyzed over 250 different team attributes. At first Project Aristotle focused on variables like team member skills and leadership. Then the Google researchers came across studies on something called psychological safety and quickly discovered it had a far larger impact on team performance than any of the other attributes they had been focused on.

The term psychological safety was coined by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. She defines it as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” 1In other words, everybody on the team believes it’s safe to share thoughts, ideas and concerns without fear that other team members will reject, shame, embarrass, or punish them in some way. Edmondson further elaborates: ‘‘[Psychological safety] describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

Trust as Care

Edmondson considers psychological safety to be distinct from trust but that trust is a necessary precondition for it. I would propose the assessment of psychological safety is the same as the assessment of trust in the domain of Care. It is the belief that the members of this team have each other’s best interests in mind and intend good for each other, and for the team as a whole. Therefore, it is safe to take risks, to relax and be yourself. Either way, it is clear that teams whose members trust when they speak they will be listened to, taken seriously, and supported will consistently out-perform teams in which members keep their thoughts, ideas and concerns to themselves for fear of rejection, embarrassment or punishment.

Practices for Team Care

Here are a few key practices that serve to support trust in the domain of Care.

Listen generously. Generous listening is a big contributor to the assessment of Care on teams. Listening generously is both a skill and a mindset. This kind of listening assumes the person who is speaking has something worthwhile to say. It requires being aware of and temporarily setting aside automatic judgements such as “I agree/disagree”, “good/bad”, “smart/foolish”, etc., and taking in all of what the other person is saying. Listening to understand and learn is different from listening to debate, refute, contradict, or contest. It doesn’t mean you don’t express your thoughts and concerns, just that you do so after you’ve really heard and considered the other’s perspective. Generous listening also involves asking questions to help the other person clarify and fully express what they have to say. When team members listen to each other in this way it signals trust that they have each other’s interests and those of the team at heart.

Speak up. One notable finding from Google’s Project Aristotle was that on the highly productive teams everyone spoke for roughly the same amount of time during discussions on any given topic. When team members feel what they have to say will be respectfully listened to and seriously considered it creates a space for them to speak honestly. But people do have to take the initiative to speak up. Doing so supports further trust in the domain of Care: I have enough interest in our shared success that I want to contribute my thinking to the discussion.

Disagree and commit. We’ve all experienced people who belittle, disparage or even threaten those they disagree with, none of which encourages trust that they have others’ best interests in mind. This behavior undermines safety and is highly counterproductive. But it is equally counterproductive if team members feel they can’t express disagreement and so pull back from conflict. Productive conflict is essential for innovation and breakthrough results. Trust in the domain of Care makes it possible.

Disagree and commit also means standing behind the team’s decisions once they’ve been made even if you still disagree. This also supports a sense of trust that team members have each other’s backs and fully support the team as a whole.

Create intimate comradery. In Jim Collins’ seminal book Good to Great he talks about how much members of the leadership teams in the “good to great” companies enjoyed each other’s company. “Their experiences,” he writes, “went beyond mutual respect (which they certainly had) to lasting comradeship.”2 This kind of close comradery comes with intimacy between team members.

As researcher, speaker and author Brené Brown points out, “There is no intimacy without vulnerability.”3 Vulnerability is at the root of trust in general and the assessment of Care in particular. Intimate comradery on a team happens when there is space for people to share their values, fears, hopes, disappointments, and joys – the stuff that makes us human beings beyond our roles, titles and skills.

For goodness sakes have fun! One of the surest ways to create a bond of intimate comradery is to have fun together as a team. Teams that are “all business”, it turns out, are not as productive over time as teams whose members take time to have fun, goof around, and otherwise engage with each other beyond just the business at hand. Sometimes that means scheduling time that isn’t focused on work, such as having a casual lunch together. But fun also comes from simply allowing space for playfulness in meetings. There’s another big plus to having fun: a mood of playfulness also stimulates creativity and opens team members up to innovative thinking.

1“Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” by Amy Edmondson, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2, June 1999.

2Good to Great, Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2001, p. 62.

3Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown, Avery, 2015, p. 104.

Three Transition Questions

by Charles Feltman

We make many transitions in our lives. We graduate, get a job, change jobs, get married, have kids, get promoted. Etc. Some we assess are good, easy, smooth, while others can be difficult, even painful. Yet each transition offers a great opportunity to learn and grow in our lives and our work.

When I was in my late 30’s my wife of 15 years and I separated, making me a part-time single dad. At the same time I moved to a different city to take a new job with a new company. Each of those transitions was huge in its own right, but all three together were nearly overwhelming. I started going to a therapist during this time and one of the most valuable pieces of work she had me do was to answer what she called the three transition questions. They provided me a jumping off place for invaluable life learning during that time of transition and well into my next decade.

To this day I use the three questions whenever I face a transition. I also offer them to my coaching clients, who inevitably find them useful as they go through important professional and personal changes. You can ask these three questions at any point before, during, or even after you’ve made a transition. If you really dig into them they will help you get the most from and make the most out of the experience.

1. What do I need to leave behind?

This question asks you to be intentional about letting go of certain ways of thinking, feeling and acting that will limit your ability to be fully successful in your new role or situation. These may include particular skills, attitudes, perspectives, even habitual moods, emotions or body postures that have served you well in the past but will only get in your way if you continue to rely on them.

2. What do I need to bring with me in this transition?

Invariably we have ways of thinking, abilities, skill sets, and values that will be of good use to us in whatever new role or situation we are moving into, and we want to not only bring them along but perhaps nurture them further. The important work here is to determine as best we can the difference between what we want to bring with that will truly be of value and what won’t and can be left behind. Sometimes we have to spend time in the new territory before we can clearly discern which is which.

3. What will I need to add?

Like the “bring with” question, to fully answer this question may require some experience in the new role or situation. But considering it at the beginning of a transition can still prove very useful.

Here are two examples of what using the questions can lead to for people in some stage of transition.


Lori had recently been promoted from manager of a small team of product managers to the director of the entire product marketing group in her business unit. In her new position she had seven direct reports and a total of 57 people working under her.

What do I need to leave behind? One thing Lori’s new boss was very clear about when he offered her the job was that as director she would need to lead development of marketing strategy for the business unit. When Lori thought about the first question she could see that in her previous jobs she had been focused almost exclusively on working with her team to implement strategies developed by others. She had been very good at it and had been repeatedly recognized and rewarded for it. But now she had to refocus from the micro to the macro, which meant not only would she need to learn more about strategic planning, she would have to get out of her team’s way and let them do the implementation part. If she didn’t let go of that skill set, which she was quite proud of, she would quickly fail in her role as director.

What do I need to bring with me? Lori recognized she needed to keep was her understanding of how a strategy is successfully implemented. It would help ensure that the strategic thinking she did resulted in plans her team would be able to effectively put into operation. In the process of answering the first two questions Lori could see it would be important to keep a clear distinction between developing implementable strategy and actually doing the implementing.

What do I need to add? Lori was clear she needed to learn how to do good strategic planning – that was obvious. As she thought about it more deeply he came up with other skills and competencies she would need to add to be really successful in her new role. Since she now had team managers reporting to her she needed to add an ability to coach and support their development as managers. She also needed to learn to be more at ease working with the company’s senior leaders. This last recognition took her back around to something else she realized she needed to leave behind: a habitual fear of and deeply ingrained desire to please people in authority.

After working through the three questions she was better prepared to move through this milestone transition in her career more smoothly and successfully.


Ron had been a VP of sales and marketing at his firm for ten months but was struggling to find his footing. Both his direct reports and members of the executive team were complaining about his “abrasive style” that didn’t fit with the company’s culture. At first Ron assumed the complainers would settle down. After all, he had been hired to shake things up and that always generated some amount rancor. But the CEO had recently told him bluntly he needed to make some changes in his communication style, at which point Ron realized he needed to do something different. He hired an executive coach to help him and as they began the coach walked him through the transition questions.

What do I need to leave behind? At first Ron couldn’t answer to this question so he took it as an assignment to do over a week’s time. In his next meeting with his coach Ron mentioned hearing on an Internet podcast that sarcasm can really put people off. He acknowledged he had a “sarcastic wit”. He said it was something he was known and celebrated for at his previous company. But he began to wonder about if it might be grating on people in this new company’s culture. He started by asking a couple colleagues at the previous company for their thoughts. They both told him they usually enjoyed his sarcasm because they knew his heart was in the right place, but it had sometimes ruffled feathers and caused hurt feelings, something Ron hadn’t realized. But it was his wife and two teenage kids who really spelled it out for him: they deeply disliked how cutting and disrespectful it felt when he turned it on them. This led to a very valuable family discussion. The bottom line was Ron realized he needed to leave the sarcasm behind at home as well as work.

What do I need to bring with me? Ron knew he would need to keep the strong drive to succeed that had served him well throughout his career so far. As he thought about it, though, he also recognized he would need to learn new ways to motivate other people who weren’t as hard driving as he was.

What do I need to add? As Ron struggled to hold back on the sarcasm he realized he needed to learn other ways to relate and get his points across to people. As a leader he needed to set goals and ensure everyone was aligned with them, motivate people, and hold them accountable. As he thought about this question Ron decided he wanted to add the capacity to do these things in a way that was positive and supported the best in people, rather than mocking their faults with sarcasm and hoping they’d do better next time. This is how Ron summed it up: “I want to add more generosity, respect and care toward the people I work with, and my family.”

Ron knew adding generosity, respect and care, and letting go of his habitual sarcasm, was not going to be a quick and easy process. Along the way he began a daily meditation practice, did some work with a therapist, made more time to spend with his family, and joined a running club. But if he hadn’t taken the time to really dig deep and identify what he wanted to set aside and what he wanted to add he never would have begun what turned out to be a very worthwhile journey.

What about you?

Are you in transition in your life? If so, how would you answer these three questions? I would love to hear what they bring up for you. If you feel like sharing please email me at

The Privilege of Coaching TED Fellows

The Privilege of Coaching TED Fellows

I have had the privilege of coaching TED Fellows for the past several years. Volunteering my time and using my skillset to support these amazing people has been enormously rewarding for me. It’s not something I’ve spoken or written about, it’s just one of the great things I get to do. But I do want to share an great article by Alanna Shaikh, Head of TED Fellows Coaching and Mentoring Initiative. In it Alanna gives an excellent summary of the value of coaching and what to consider if you are thinking about investing in a coach for professional and/or personal development.

Please read and enjoy!

To Be Worthy of Trust

“We don’t need more trust, we need more trustworthiness.” – Rachael Botsman, from an On Point radio interview, Nov. 21, 2017

Many people lately have written or spoken about what seems to be a growing “trust problem” in our society. In know – I’ve been one of those voices. We point to surveys that show trust is at an all time low in businesses, political leaders and government institutions, media, and other areas of society.

The punchline of these talks, articles and posts is usually that we just need more trust because trust is a good thing. But distrust is a natural and appropriate response to untrustworthy behavior. Who wants to trust people who act in bad faith? Rachael Botsman is right, what we lack is trustworthiness. What we need are more people, and particularly more leaders who are really worthy of the trust placed in them.

Commitment and Practice

There are two components required to be consistently trustworthy. The first is making a clear commitment to being worthy of others’ trust. The second is taking care to behave in accordance with that commitment day in and day out. The first is a moral choice; the second is an ongoing practice. The behavior of trustworthiness is something we can learn and get better at, but only if we are committed to doing so.

One thing I’ve learned from personal experience as well as from the many leaders and managers I’ve coached over the years is that when we explicitly decide and declare a commitment to being trustworthy it makes the discipline of learning and choosing trustworthy behavior in our daily lives much easier.

I’ve long contended that most people don’t knowingly act in bad faith. Instead they damage trust with each other by failing to pay attention to their words and actions. Based on this belief, most of the work I’ve done with clients to support stronger trust in organizations has been focused on helping people recognize and practice behaviors that build trust while avoiding those that damage it.

The Moral Gap

Lately, however, I am concerned an increasing number of leaders in business, politics, media and other sectors of our society have stopped bothering with a moral compass to navigate their lives. These people don’t seem to care much about being worthy of others’ trust except when it serves them in the moment. They feign trustworthy behavior to get something they want—power, wealth, status—or to avoid some unpleasant consequence. Instead of building trust for the long haul it is merely transactional and easily abandoned when no longer needed. They often actively choose to act in bad faith.

We are seeing the upshot of this in the results of research showing precipitously declining trust in the institutions that form the cornerstones of a civil, democratic society: our political and civic organizations, the businesses that form our economy, the media who inform our understanding of what’s going on in the world, our schools, and even in some cases our churches.

One of the fundamental concerns we have when it comes to trusting someone is: Can I believe you intend to be trustworthy, even if you don’t always hit the mark with your behavior? It is a concern about care, sincerity, and moral grounding. We can forgive each other for breaches of trust, which allows us to live and work together effectively going forward, but only when we believe in each others’ moral commitment to being trustworthy.

Try It Yourself

Don’t just take my word for it, try it out for yourself. Declare out loud to yourself that you are committed to being worthy of others’ trust. Better yet make that commitment to your friends, to your boss, colleagues and the people who work for you; to your customers. Notice what happens to you when you do. And notice how it affects the people you make that commitment to.

You may want to warn people you won’t always live up to your commitment, that sometimes you’ll mess up. Because if you’re like the rest of us you will. But tell them you want to hear about it right away so you can restore trust, learn and adopt new behavior that is trustworthy.

Ask Others

After you’ve done it yourself a few times try asking others to commit to being worthy of your trust. Ask your employees, your boss, the people on your team, your city council representative. Ask your kids. Listen and watch how they respond. Is his body aligned with his words? Does she sound like she really does intend to be worthy of your trust? If so, extend them your trust (or continue to do so). If you have doubts, heed that inner voice and do what you need to take care of yourself.

I don’t expect this will bring a sudden end to our society’s trust problem, even if everyone who reads this article does it and then passes it on to three more people who do it. What it can do is create a subtle but powerful shift in you and your relationships. Then, over time, as more people do the work required to be truly worthy of others’ trust we will hopefully see a larger social shift, a reversing of the dangerous trend of the past few decades.

Seven Signs Distrust May Be Secretly Sabotaging Your Team

Sometimes distrust between people or groups in the workplace is obvious: blatant interpersonal conflicts, people refusing to work with each other, open acknowledgment that trust is low. But often distrust is hidden. It lurks behind a veneer of polite, friendly interactions that mask what I’ve come to call a culture of secret distrust.

Secret distrust can afflict teams, people in different departments or divisions, and even entire companies. The distrust stays hidden because no one will openly acknowledge that trust is an issue. If you ask any team member within earshot of another they will assure you they do trust each other. Unless you know what to look for, hidden distrust can go on creating a huge hidden cost indefinitely in the form of lost time, money, and energy. It can demoralize good employees, stifle innovation, create unnecessary stress, and still go mostly unnoticed.

When hidden distrust is part of the culture of a team or company it affects everything. The good news is, if you know it’s there you can do something about it. To help you determine if your team is hobbled by hidden distrust here are seven symptoms to look for:

  1. No conflict or controversy. Team members fear conflict because they don’t trust each other or even themselves to keep their focus on ideas. Instead they are afraid conflict will become personal. As a result they don’t openly question or challenge each other’s ideas or opinions and fail to address issues they need to deal with if there is any sign of conflict. What they will do is complain to each other or the boss privately. They may also use political maneuvering to get what they want. The ability to engage in the kind of creative conflict that yields great results requires strong trust. If it’s absent those conversations don’t happen. Nor do the great results everyone wants.
  2. No accountability. It is a sure sign of distrust when someone on the team does something, or fails to do something, that hurts the team and no one calls them on it. For example, the team is waiting for input from one member who repeatedly fails to produce it, but no one on the team addresses the problem directly. Accountability conversations among team members requires trust. No trust, no accountability. Which also kills results.
  3. Few decisions, little action, no results. There may be lots of discussion but the team seldom comes to a decision on anything. Coming to a decision as a team requires that they’ve really worked through the issues and addressed everyone’s concerns. This, in turn requires trust. Without trust, no decisions. Not much ever gets done and results are delayed at best.
  4. Decisions made without the team. Sometimes it can appear the team is making decisions and taking action, but a closer look will reveal that they are not really made by the team. The team meets, issues are brought up and talked about but no decisions are made. The team adjourns and then team members with different interests and agendas lobby a single decision-maker one-on-one after the team meeting. Unfortunately, when decisions are in made this way the decision-maker rarely hears from everyone and the value of the team is diminished or lost completely.
  5. Over-attended meetings. When everyone and their grandmother troops from one meeting to the next, it’s likely distrust is at work. Everyone wants to be there because none of them trusts others to be fully honest, paint an accurate picture, completely understand or fairly represent issues, or even that they care about achieving the team’s mission. It requires strong trust to leave important decisions to others. The benefit, of course, is that people are deployed much more efficiently and effectively when they’re not all involved in every discussion and decision.
  6. Excessive oversight. Having one or two additional pairs of eyes on things is important, especially the eyes of people whose work is affected. But when everyone on the team wants approval on even small decisions it’s a pretty good indication team members don’t trust each other. This, in turn, slows everything down. When trust is high each team member is trusted to do what he/she does well and work gets done effectively and efficiently.
  7. People withhold critical information. When team members don’t trust each other a common behavior is to control information that is important to the team. Information is power that people can use to protect themselves against others they don’t trust so they keep everything close to the vest. Teams that trust share information freely with each other so that everyone has what they need to do their part in achieving the team’s goals.

If you recognize two or more of these symptoms it is highly likely your team is being sabotaged by secret distrust. Okay, you say, I do see that my team (or department, or company) may be hobbled by secret distrust. So what can I do about it?

Building trust starts with being honest about what is happening. If people don’t trust each other someone has to name it before any change can begin. This is not an easy or comfortable thing for any individual to do. For starters others may not willing look at it even if you do call it out to the team – culture is resistant to change.

What you can do is begin by identifying other people who can help start the necessary trust building conversation. Those people can include other team members who recognize the team needs to work on trust; the team’s sponsor if he/she can see the problem; other influential leaders in your organization who understand what needs to be done; finally, your company’s HR can often recommend internal or external resources for this. But the bottom line is if no one does anything and the status quo reigns your team and company will continue to suffer from a culture of secret distrust.

Confronting Distrust Part 2: Five Steps for Starting the Conversation Off Well

After you have had a conversation with yourself (see post titled Confronting Distrust Part 1: Six Things to Think About Before You Talk) and you are ready to talk to someone you distrust about your concerns, here are some suggestions for starting that conversation. There are many ways to start talking with someone about distrust. In my experience some are better than others, and these five moves have proven to work well in most cases.

Remember, this is only a start, a way into a productive discussion. As with any honest conversation, you can’t predict or control where it will go or what the final outcome will be. All you can know for sure is that, if it is a real conversation both of you will end up in a different place than when you began.

  1. Start the conversation by expressing your desire to fully trust the person. For example: “I believe in order for both of us to do our best work here we need to fully trust each other.” Or, “I believe the team will perform best if we exhibit full trust in each other.”

  2. Describe the specific actions or behaviors that have impacted your trust in this person using neutral language. Tell them that as a result you do not fully trust their reliability, competence, sincerity or care at this time. For example: “The last three times you took on assignments for the team you didn’t get them done in the time you committed to. All three were at least a week late. Because of this, at this point I’m having a hard time trusting you will meet your commitments in the future.” Talk about what they have done, not what they are. “You just aren’t reliable” will almost certainly result in the other person becoming defensive, while language like the example above is easier for him or her to hear and still stay open to the rest of what you have to say.

  3. Ask them to tell you how they see the situation you described. Their response to this may be to attempt to excuse their behavior and/or blame other people or circumstances, or possibly even blame you. No matter what they say at this point, the best thing you can do is listen until they have finished, without interrupting, contradicting, or attacking. Consider what they have said and respond honestly. This is usually just the beginning of what can be a productive conversation. Remember, the conversation is about building trust, not about confirming that you are right.

    What do you do if you’ve listened to the other person and they have not taken any responsibility for their behavior, just offered excuses or blamed others? If the relationship is important enough to you or your work, you will need to risk some conflict. Repeat that there is an issue of trust in the relationship between the two of you that needs to be dealt with somehow because it is getting in the way of your work. Ask if there is anything they could do in the situation to address your concerns. If you believe you can do so, offer to help determine what is not in their control and address it.

  4. Describe what they can do to regain your trust. For example: “In order to help me fully trust your (reliability, competence, sincerity, and or care), here is what you can do…”

  5. Ask them if they will commit to do what is needed to regain your trust.

Confronting Distrust Part 1: Six Steps to Take Before You Talk

Most of us who have worked in an organization of any kind have been in the situation of having to work with someone we don’t trust. At best this situation can create a lot of stress. At worst it can decrease productivity, escalate costs, increase employee sick days and turnover, an more.

A client named Robert recently told me that he had lost trust in another senior director in his group. According to my client, this individual (I’ll call him Mike) had repeatedly said one thing then did something different. In some of these instances my client said what Mike had done had caused major problems. At this point Robert didn’t trust anything Mike said. But, as my client put it, “I still have to work with this guy. Since I can’t fire him, and I don’t want to find a new job, I’ve gotten really good at avoiding him.”

Talking with someone you about trust is rarely easy. People have told me in all seriousness they would rather quit and try to find a new job than have to confront a distrusted co-worker.

But after years of working with people around issues of trust and distrust my experience is that talking about it usually does make a positive difference if you go about it the right way. Before saying anything to the other person, start by having a conversation with yourself.

Here are six things to do before you start talking to the other person.

  1. Decide if you are willing to talk to the person about it by asking yourself the following questions:
    What might I lose by having the conversation?
    What will I lose by continuing to distrust this person?
    How will it benefit me, my team and my company to work this out so I can trust this person?

    Robert’s answers to these questions were: 1) The worst thing that could happen is Mike could get angry and we’d be in an even worse situation. 2) It is really starting to affect my performance. When I successfully avoid him I don’t get stuff I need to do my job. Plus I think it’s affecting the entire team in a bad way. 3) If I could trust him I’d be able to do my job better than I am now, the team would be more unified, and frankly, I’d feel better about coming to work. Probably other stuff, too.

  2. Identify what kind of trust the person has breached or betrayed.
    Typically we think about trust as just one thing. But when it comes to dealing with distrust it can be very useful to think about different domains of trust. I use four: care which means you have the other person’s interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take action; sincerity which means you are honest and your actions align with your words; reliability which means you keep the specific promises you make; competence which means you have the capacity, skills, knowledge, and resources to act effectively in a given situation.
    (Click here for more on domains of trust.)

    At first Robert answered the question by saying the individual betrayed his trust in all four domains. But after thinking about it more carefully he determined that it was primarily the domains of sincerity and care that were the issue for him. He acknowledged Mike usually kept specific commitments and that he was competent at his job. It was when Mike said one thing and then did something that didn’t align with what he’d said that bothered Robert. He offered a couple of examples of this. Robert also believed that Mike cared more about his own career and status in the company than about the team’s and company’s mission.

  3. Define the ‘standard’ you are using. The point of this step is to recognize that the other person may hold different standards than you regarding the situation. Defining a standard for making an assessment of trustworthiness applies most directly in the domains of reliability and competence. If this is so, then you can focus your conversation to arrive at a shared understanding.

    When we talked about it Robert couldn’t identify any particular standard he was using to assess Mike’s sincerity. However, he did agree to keep the idea in mind that he may be holding Mike to a standard he was not aware of.

  4. Identify the specific actions or behaviors that have led to your assessment of distrust. This is a critical step. Telling the person specifically what they do and/or say (or don’t do/say) that you interpret as untrustworthy can help them understand how to rebuild trust with you. Once you identify the behaviors or actions it is equally important to find and practice using neutral language to describe the behavior. “You said you would support my proposal in the meeting but you were obviously lying because all you did was trash my plan, which I think shows a complete lack of integrity on your part.” A statement like that may describe the behavior, but it would also kill any possibility of further conversation. A more useful way of saying it would be “When we spoke last week you said, ‘I will support your proposal.’ But today in the meeting you only talked about the potential problems you thought it could cause. That did not sound like support to me.”

    Robert related two specific instances in which Mike had said one thing to Robert that he later contradicted either when talking with someone else or by doing something that didn’t align with what he’d said. Like the example above, we worked on how he could describe these situations to Mike using neutral language.

  5. Determine what you need from them in order for them to regain your trust. What can they do that will address your concerns and reassure you that you can begin or resume trusting them? Think it through from the other person’s perspective. Is this something they have the capacity to do? Can they do it in the context of their work environment? How can you help them regain your trust?

    At first Robert said what he would need from Mike in order to trust him was for Mike to stop saying one thing and doing another. But as he talked it through Robert realized everyone, himself included, sometimes changed their minds about things (he realized that would be holding Mike to an impossibly high standard). A more realistic request would be that if at all possible Mike would let him know when he’s changed his mind before Robert hears it from someone else or sees that he did something different.

    At this point you are either ready to have a conversation with the other person, or you have decided you are not going to try to repair the relationship. If you do want to try talking about it, there is one final step.

  6. Ask the other person if he/she would be willing to have a conversation with you about something that concerns you. Agree on a time and place that are mutually convenient and private. Avoid blindsiding them by bringing this up as part of a conversation about something else. You want the other person to be calm, thoughtful, and open to listening to your concern, and not defensive.

In a future post I’ll talk about how to start a conversation of this kind in a way that sets you up to succeed.

Work/Life Balance Is a Red Herring

I recently read an article entitled Why We Suck at Work-Life Balance, and How We Can Suck Less by Mark Nichols, published on the website As an executive coach I have worked with plenty of clients who could count themselves charter members of the suck at work/life balance club.


In his article Nichols offers three good reasons why many people are so poor at getting their work/life equation more balanced. A little more “life”, a little less “work”. Of the three reasons he lists, the one he focuses on most is the all too common company culture that gives lip service to “balance” while reinforcing long work hours through covert, and sometimes overt pressure. You know: the executive who talks about never seeing his family as if it’s some kind of badge of honor. The boss who sends out emails at 2am. The not so subtle implication that people who want to get ahead need to be reading and responding to the boss’s 2am email threads. Etc.

It’s difficult to achieve anything like work/life balance working in a company where this is the norm.

So Forget Work/Life Balance

The concept of work/life balance sets up a false dichotomy. The work/life balance paradigm says we are either working or we are living our lives. The idea is we are better off when we can strike an equitable balance between the time we spend living and our time working to earn the money to live. In this paradigm we tend to ask ourselves questions like: How can I make more time for my life, family, social life, etc.? How can I manage my work time better? How do I deal with a boss who expects me to be at his beck and call 24/7? How do I show people I’m a hard worker worthy of that next promotion?

But in reality work is just one of the things you do in your whole life, not some separate activity. Part of the time you are living on Earth you spend exchanging labor for money. These two are only separate if you buy into the false dichotomy of work/life balance.

Instead of searching for work/life balance, integrate work into a well-lived life.

Different Questions

From this perspective some different questions come to mind:

  • To what extent am I wholeheartedly engaged in my life, including what I do at work?
  • Am I bringing all of myself to family, friends, community, and my work, irrespective of how much time I spend in each of these areas?
  • What do I value?
  • To what extent does how I spend my time align with what I value?
  • What do my employees value, and what can I do to support them in wholeheartedly engaging in their lives, including the work we do together?
  • What might I want to change?

In Reality…

For most of us, answers to these questions will vary over time. What you value in your 20s is – or will be – different than in your 30s and 40s. My clients who are in their 50s and beyond almost all report even more change in what they value and how that shows up in what they want to do with their time. We may also experience changes week to week, month to month, season to season.

If you are frustrated because you don’t believe you have enough time outside of work and can’t figure out how to get it, or/or you are feeling pressure from family to spend more time with them, set aside the idea of work/life balance try looking at the whole of your life from a different perspective.

What I’ve found is when people take the time to figure out what they really value, and discover what it takes for them to be wholeheartedly engaged in all of their lives, they experience greater success and wellbeing all around. How and where they need to spend their time becomes clear. They are comfortable saying no when they need to because it is based on a solid foundation of values. They have the conversations they need to have with their bosses, families, colleagues, and others to make living their values work. At the same time, the people around them – family, bosses, colleagues, employees, friends – get more of what they need in the form of authentic connection and wholehearted engagement.