• Ela Stilwell
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Trust is Tricky

No matter where you end up in project management, you’ll deal with people. Whether you work with investors and funding applications or the CEO and the planning and accountability end of a project, there’s a human element involved. We started our podcast, Messy but Essential: the people side of project Management – and this blog – to help you improve your “soft” skills to reduce hard costs.

Projects don’t execute themselves; people execute projects and build relationships. Without trust, relationships fail, and teams are dysfunctional. We focus on people because they make the difference between a successful project and a failed one. And we’re starting with trust because everything and every topic we’ll cover here flows from trust.

We focus on projects because projects typically have a defined beginning and end. In his work with project teams across many industries, Rod discovered that this defined timeline requires some behaviours – like building trust and relationships – to happen more quickly than they would in ongoing operational activities. We have to trust more rapidly when we’re part of a project team because teamwork is more visible.

Our blog posts are a condensed version of our podcast! Listen to the episode linked above to hear Rod take you through this content.

Because trust is a trickle topic, think of those people who you trust most in the world, and keep them in mind as we work through this messy people topic.

Trust in a model, trust in colleagues, trust in the process, and trust in my team to challenge and correct me. And for some, that isn’t very easy to do.

Patricia Aburdene, the author of Conscious Money, said, “transcendent values like trust and integrity literally translate into revenue, profits and prosperity.” That’s not soft stuff. Trust doesn’t come easily, and it can’t be bought. Trust needs to be earned.

So what is trust?

There are two critical components of trust we want to explore. According to Stephen M. Covey, trust is the combination of character and competence. Joel Roberts, a former broadcaster and now an author and speaker, points out that trust involves being credible. In his Language of Impact series, Joel stresses that credibility is made up of humanity and competence.


Our character is that part of us that people can most often see and judge the quickest. You’ve likely heard the expression, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” In most instances, that first impression is where your character is on display. All those cues help us decide whether to trust someone’s character or not. And while you can’t change how you may have first appeared to someone, you can change their opinion of you as they get to know you.

When you reflect on those most trusted friends or colleagues, what is it in their character that helps you trust them? Did you know about them when you first met them? What did you learn about them that allowed you to trust them? Since trust is the foundation of every functional team and relationship and trusting someone’s character involves getting to know them more, how do we go about doing that?


The second part of the trust equation is competence.  Competence is a combination of skill and knowledge and is contextual, not universal. I might trust my accountant to manage my bookkeeping, but I wouldn’t trust her to perform surgery on me. Neither has anything to do with her character.

Think back to those trusted individuals who you’ve kept in mind throughout this.

  • What skills do you believe they possess?
  • What knowledge do they have?
  • Do you know what experiences they’ve had that have added to their skills and knowledge and perhaps even shaped their character?

Often in projects, we can be surprised at who on our team already has the competency or skills we need if we were only to ask. How many people around us have competencies that we don’t know about? How many of your team members have experiences that would immediately add to the team’s trust level if we knew about them?

Today, we say that the average worker may have as many as five careers in their lifetime. Perhaps some of your team are on their third or fourth career, but we only know about the most recent one. We may be depriving ourselves of the wealth of experience around us because we simply don’t know enough about our team.

Getting to Trust

In general, we think of those we know as more trustworthy than those we don’t. Our trust increases as we get to know someone and better understand their background experience and what drives or inspires them. That’s because the better we know someone, the easier it is to assess their character and competence. Of course, for some, the more we get to know them, the less we trust them.

Think again about some of the people you trust most in your life. How well do you know them? Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has a few revealing questions he asks about people he meets.

As you think of that most trusted list, can you answer these questions about them:

  • Where did they grow up?
  • Where did they spend their childhood years?
  • Where do they fit in their family? Are they the firstborn, middle child, perhaps the only child?
  • What was unique about their growing up years that helped shape their character?

In our podcast episode, Rod speaks about his experience with the Boy Scout movement as a young boy and continuing as an adult leader. Reflecting on the experience, Rod remarked

“One of the particular things about scouting was that when we greeted a fellow Scout, we shook with the left hand. The reason behind this involves trust and vulnerability. When the founder of the movement, Robert Baden-Powell, served in Africa, he learned that the Waziri tribe members always greeted each other by shaking with their left hand. You see, to do that, they had to put down their shield, leaving themselves vulnerable to attack. It didn’t mean that they dropped their spear, but they did have less protection. They had to trust that the person they were meeting wouldn’t attack them. Baden-Powell loved the metaphor and incorporated the left handshake into scouting, as he built a movement based on trust, leadership, and teamwork.”

Trust involves being vulnerable and being vulnerable means letting your guard down. Building trust is a process.

We encourage you to consider your strategy for developing trust in others. Consider these questions:

  • If someone is likable, do you automatically trust them?
  • Have you ever met someone for the first time and instinctively trusted them, or perhaps didn’t trust them?
  • How do you know whether or not you can trust them?
  • Are you prepared to drop your shield, or do you need more intel?


Building trust requires putting our egos aside and spending time to better know those we need to trust. I can tell you from experience that the journey can be fun and incredibly rewarding on so many fronts. Be prepared to be amazed at what you learn about your teammates.

Author: Ela Stilwell