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Herb Stevenson
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To Lead

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Trust: A Self-Examination for Executive Coaches and Leaders

Herb Stevenson, CEO
Cleveland Consulting Group, Inc.

“Trust is a many splendored thing” may seem like an odd way to start this article. Typically, we tend toward a perspective that trust either exists or it does not. We tend to act as if it is a passive process based on our experiences with other people, be they bosses, peers, direct reports, spouses or friends. It becomes an active experience when something drastically changes our perception; i.e. we become fonder or disappointed, often experiencing it as a complete reframe of our self, our perception and the other person.

When I took a deeper examination, I returned to my gestalt and existential roots to get a clearer perspective of what is this nefarious word we call trust. In my search, I began to realize that trusting is something we “individually do; it is something we make, we create, we build, we maintain, we sustain with our promises, our commitments, our emotions and our sense of our own integrity.” (Solomon & Flores, p. 5) In many ways, it is at the core of our own self-perception of who we are as a person. Moreover, it is often a passive process that is managed reactively instead of actively or pro-actively.

As I examined it more deeply, I discovered that the lack of conscious awareness of the importance of actively engaging both the possibility of trust and distrust was more like a self-created trap than a true strategy for being fully present and therefore effective as a coach (or leader). The trap involves not acknowledging and “owning” that my perception of another person involves the constant “possibility of betrayal.” What I do with that possibility is the crux of developing and creating executive trust. If I fully embrace that possibility, I realize that every person (client or otherwise) is more than any heightened moment of trust or distrust and therefore requires my digging deep into my reactions to such situations; else, I may pre-judge the person (and situation) from my preconceived notions of what is expected (or preferred). My prejudgement is akin to my shadow, the unconscious, unclaimed aspects of myself, that rears up when triggered from unfinished or incomplete but judged experiences from my past. My presence to fully engage with the possibility returns me to my true self when I consciously choose to trust or to distrust by recognizing that the act and therefore this relationship is more than this particular event, be it an act of perceived betrayal or an act of fondness in the form unexpected recognition and/or significant support.

Some Application

TrustIn business (and relationships), there tends to be passive agreement in the form of the unwritten rules of civility. Culturally, there may be variations. Nonetheless, they exist. Solomon and Flores (p.4.) refer to this process as “cordial hypocrisy: the strong tendency of people in organizations, because of loyalty or fear, to pretend that there is trust when there is none, being polite in the name of harmony when cynicism and distrust are active poisons, eating away at the very existence of the organizations.” We frequently refer to these as the cultural dynamics of the organization. A cliche that reflects the cultural dynamics of organizational trust is captured in the phrase knowing the unwritten rules of “what feeds or eats you”. Knowing the difference matters in terms of survival; and, in such situations, there is a pre-judged process of how to make meaning of what to trust or to distrust. Moreover, the shared perception is that there is no choice to individually decide. This leads to organizational and executive shadow behavior.

Authentic trust goes beyond our experience and perceptions of benevolence, integrity, competence, and predictability. It is always about the relationship between individuals and how we choose to hold the person (+/-) and to make meaning of events. In short, “we make decisions to trust. We make promises and tacit commitments. We see them through. We come to have expectations of others, and we respond to the fulfillment and frustration of those expectations. Trust is not something we ‘have’ or a medium or an atmosphere within which we operate. Trust is something we do, something we make. Our mutual choices of trust determine nothing less than the kinds of beings we are and the kinds of lives we will live together.” It begins with trusting our self.

An Example

TrustAn executive struggled between being a hard charging, directive wielding and punishing individual and a sincere and supportive leader. Under duress, the less stellar behaviors were often released whereas the more supportive individual appeared when the performance was deemed according to executive expectations. Cordial hypocrisy seeped throughout the organization.

After a careful discussion of the behavioral elements of trust and distrust–benevolence, integrity, competence, and predictability (see February Newsletter), it became clear that the client simply saw these as behaviors that might lead to increasing the perception of trust if he so chose to enact them. I also realized that he had no understanding that trust is relational and that he had an active responsibility to chose to trust or not and more over to be responsible for his contribution to whether or not the relationships within the organization were defined by trust or distrust. He believed that he had eminent trust from the fact that he held his executive position. Regardless of his behavior or his untested for reasonableness expectations, he believed he had no responsibility to make or create trust in the organization.

TrustNot all things end well. It became clear that the client simply viewed himself as a tool from which to manipulate behavior towards the maximum performance and his bonus attainment.

In time, morale declined to the point that it was clear that something had to change. He advocated trust throughout the organization while never practicing trusting behaviors or trust relationship building. The board recognized that the lack of trust was at the epicenter of the organization. Instead of a change-out of the executive, the organization was re-organized to shake-things-up and hopefully reform as a more trusting dynamic. No longer able to impact the executive with his new focus, I closed the relationship and moved on. Some clients are unable to change or to see that they are the problem.


In retrospect, I realized that I had insufficient understanding of how to create personal awareness for the client surrounding how he was impacting trust with the organization and moreover how he was not trusting the organization to be able to be a high performing and self sustaining. I was not clear within myself how to explain what is trust and that we create, make, and be it when consciously being present to the person, situation, or crisis.

What is a consciously aware Trust1

Assuming a fully present, consciously aware coaching or leadership stance, I began to explore what is trust. I came to understand that authentic trustt--

Return to the Client

As I further reflected on the client, I realized that his focus of command and control drove all of his behavior. As such, he saw trust only as a control mechanism, maybe another tool, for his directive wielding approach. He could not conceive that increasing trust does not increase control. Nor could he grasp that by easing the reins of control, it improves efficiency, effectiveness, cooperation, team spirit, employee morale, and the chances for success in an increasingly competitive world. (Solomon & Flores, 22.) Rather, he saw empowerment as his ability to hold others responsible by quickly blaming them for either failing or misunderstanding the directive. Trust requires real authority and autonomy to perform well. He could not confer either authority or autonomy.

My Take-Aways

In this case, I am not sure if there was a way to be successful in moving the client from a command and control to a supportive and trust-creating awareness. With a board that supported the command and control process by quickly reorganizing to disrupt poor morale and distrust, the culture might have been too resistant to any shifts in perspective. Nonetheless, it has taught me to explore the degree of trust that exists within the relationship and organization and well as determine if the client is willing to consider and then integrate that s(he) is responsible for actively creating trust.


Robert C. Solomon & Fernando Flores, Building Trust: In business, politics, relationships, & life. Oxford University Press, 2001


1 Adapted from Solomon & Flores.

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