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Developing Trust

Alfonso Bucero

Developing trust in any environment is key for success. Trust is so central to our lives that we take it for granted, like breathing air. We may see ourselves as trustworthy, but that does not count. We have to be seen to be trustworthy by all partners, colleagues, and executives. Being in a position of authority does not automatically mean that we will be trusted. Some people in authority are trusted, others are not, as can be seen from public attitudes to different professions. Within the workplace, trust is essential. Policy manuals and management methodologies cannot legislate for trust. The most influential managers tend to be the most trusted: people are prepared to work with people they trust, not with people they don't trust.

Building trust in relationships with customers, team members, and stakeholders is an essential skill for all members of a team. Trust is earned primarily by doing what you say you will do. Follow-through is absolutely critical to building relationships. Trust has to be earned, not claimed. A short example shows how untrustworthy we sound when we claim to be trustworthy. If you heard someone saying this, how much would you trust them?: "Look, Emily, I'm a great manager, I'm the best… Of course I'm very honest and I'm not lying, I always manage my team members very well…"

Are you superhero? Probably not. You can hear trust and credibility evaporating like dew in the desert as these words are said. Trust is something every manager can acquire, with effort. Trust is the function of four elements:

  • Sharing common values
  • Credibility
  • Risk and opportunity
  • Distance

Trust is built one person at a time. To build trust we need to know how to manage those elements.

Sharing Common Values

The more we share common values, perceptions, and priorities with someone else, the more we are likely to trust them. If two people share the same pastimes, faith, political outlook, education, or experiences, then they are more likely to trust each other. Most managers prefer to work with people with whom there is the minimum chance of misunderstanding. The first step in building values alignment is to listen. Listening sympathetically allows the speaker to believe that you respect their worldview. It also allows you to discover what that worldview is. Even if there is much you dislike or disagree with, you should be able to find some areas of common ground.

Focus the conversation on areas of agreement, not disagreement. Even if the only area of agreement is about your favorite films or sports, that is a start in the right direction. Let me share with you the following story: Some months ago a professional proposed a business collaboration. I had a very small company and he was a freelancer. Initially I was interested because I have the trend of listening to anybody's proposal. However, as soon as we progressed in our conversations I felt like he valued himself much more than my company and me. I had two more face-to-face meetings with him, but at the end he sent me a draft contract with very uncomfortable clauses for me and my company. His values were different. We were not able to find any common value between us.

Not everybody has the same values. But if we want to be a person of influence we need to, at least, respect other people's values. Showing interest and even admiration for someone else's values is always helpful to build trust. Respect shows that you are not going to attack or belittle someone for who they are and what they do. And there is always something good to find in anyone. If you can share the same values, or show respect for other people's values, you have made a start in building trust.


Every manager must cultivate not only hard but also soft skills to be successful. Most soft skills are linked to people's attitudes and behaviors. One of the lessons I learned is that organizations need managers who are honest and competent and can also inspire people. For example: Recently I was involved in a project whose objective was to move one organization from functional to project oriented. I found many resistors from the customer organization and only a few believers. I tried to act honestly with all of them and in many meetings I said, "This change is difficult but not impossible." Today is a good day is my principle. Everything can be changed in the project environment. Also I was very disciplined and always did what I promised. I agreed with my customer to present a project status report every Friday at 10:00 a.m. and I did. If I planned to meet somebody at a determined date, I did. I promised to escalate an issue to top management and I did. I needed to keep on my credibility.

Credibility is built through a set of little details achieved during the project. We must learn from the results and refine our actions. That means credibility. Project management credibility has to do with reputation. Credibility is something that is earned over time. It does not come automatically with the job or the title. It begins early in our lives and careers. A credibility foundation is built step by step during our professional career path. And as each step is achieved, the foundation of the future is gradually built. Credibility can be defined as the behavioral evidence that is used to judge whether a leader is believable. The most frequent should be they do what they say they will do or they practice what they preach; they walk the talk (Randall L. Englund, "Demonstrating Authenticity and Integrity," PM Network). The credible manager learns how to discover and communicate the shared values and visions that can form a common ground on which all can stand. Credible leaders find harmony among the diverse interests, points of view, and beliefs. Upon a strong, unified foundation, leaders and teams can act consistently with spirit and drive to build viable projects.

As a manager practitioner I suggest some ideas to strengthen your credibility:

  1. Exploring yourself—Explore your inner territory. Look into the mirror and ask yourself questions like: Who are you? What do you believe in? What do you stand for? To be credible as a manager, you must clarify your own values and beliefs. Once clear on your own values, translate them into a set of guiding principles that you communicate to the team you want to lead.
  2. Be sensitive with team members—Understand that your own leadership philosophy is only the beginning. To be a leader, you must also develop a deep understanding of the values and desires of your team members. Listen to them. Leadership is a relationship and you will only be able to build that relationship on mutual understanding and respect. Team members come to believe in their leaders, to see them as worthy of their trust, when they believe that the leaders have their best interests at heart.
  3. Confirming shared value—Credible leaders honor the diversity of team members. They also find a common ground for agreement on which everyone can stand. They bring people together and join them for a cause. Leaders show others how everyone's individual values and interests can be served by coming to consensus on a set of common values. Confirm a core of shared values passionately and speak enthusiastically on behalf of the project.
  4. Developing capacity—It is essential for managers to develop continuously the capacity of their members to keep their commitments. Assure that educational opportunities exist for individuals to build their knowledge and skill.
  5. Serving a purpose—Leadership is a service. Project leaders serve a purpose for their people who have made it possible for them to lead: their teams.
  6. Sustaining hope—Credible leaders keep hope alive. Teams need a positive attitude from their leaders in troubling times of transition. Optimists are proactive and behave in ways that promote health and combat illness. People with high hope are also high achievers.

Team members expect their leaders to have the courage of their convictions. They expect them to stand up for their beliefs. If leaders are not clear about what they believe in, they are much more likely to change positions with every fad or opinion poll. Without core beliefs and with only shifting positions leaders would be judged as inconsistent and be derided for being political in their behavior.

Managers are expected to be successful and achieve good results. Credibility is a condition for success that must be earned day by day. Walk the talk.

Risk and Opportunity

Risk is the rust in trust. It is corrosive of our ability to trust people. The higher the risk, the less inclined we are to trust strangers. Unless we wish to achieve great poverty, we are unlikely to trust a stranger with our life savings.

Risks abound and managers must make decisions every day where the outcome matters but where the conditions surrounding the decision are more or less uncertain. Faced with these circumstances, most managers have developed habits and strategies to deal with risk for much of the time. It is only in the presence of an unusual risk that people may be conscious of the need to make a choice.

The management of these uncertain situations that matter, also known as risk management, is a discipline in its own right. It has an established role in business, and is applied at a wide range of levels, including management of strategic risk; corporate governance; operational risk; project risk; and health, safety, and the environment. However, risk management is not just important for projects and business. There is increasing interest in the application of effective risk management in society at large, and there is a urgent need for people to embrace appropriate risk taking, both individually and in their working and social groups, supported by government and wider society.

By defining risk simply as uncertainty that matters, it is clear that knowing how to take appropriate risks in any particular situation requires an understanding of two things: the sources and nature of uncertainty, and the degree to which something matters. It is also clear that different things matter to different people to a different extent in different circumstances. As a result, a risk perceived by one person or group as requiring urgent attention may be perceived by others as normal and not worthy of their time.

The perception of risk is not absolute, either present or absent, but is situational and highly dependent on a number of contextual factors. It is this situational aspect of risk that makes the subject of decision making in uncertain situations both fascinating and important.

Taking appropriate risks requires an underlying understanding of the nature of the challenge. On one hand, managing risk can be seen as a rational and logical process requiring a grasp of factual historical evidence combined with mathematical assessments of the likelihood of the uncertain event occurring. It is, however, equally true that managing risk involves the deepest workings of the human brain, as the decisions people make are influenced by a complex interplay of conscious and subconscious factors. This is why one essential component of appropriate risk taking is an understanding of risk attitude as it applies to individuals and to decision-making groups.

Talking about risk leads many people to think only about threats, that is, those uncertainties that should they occur would result in an undesirable outcome. However, contemporary management thinking and practice treats risk in a more balanced way. An uncertain set of circumstances could equally lead to positive outcomes, allowing the definition of risk to encompass both opportunities and threats. This double-sided concept of risk is particularly important in the context of effective decision making, because most decisions need to balance the exploitation or enhancement of hoped-for positive outcomes with the avoidance or mitigation of unwelcome negative ones.

Deciding whether to seize a business opportunity to launch a new product onto the market before the competition needs to be balanced against the threats to the company's reputation if the new product is not trouble free. Although each decision is unique, there are no risk-free options. Moreover, zero risk is not only unachievable, it is also undesirable. Failing to take risk would stifle growth and limit improvement. Appropriate risk-taking promotes competitive advantage and stimulates innovation and creativity. Decision making in a world that is full of "uncertainty that matters" needs to find an optimal balance of threats and opportunities.

The influential manager will learn to separate rational from emotional responses. Truly logical risks have a pattern all their own:

  • They will not be a surprise—The more creative and unexpected the challenge, the more likely it is to be a rational objection hiding an emotional fear.
  • They will be presented positively—"How do we deal with …" rather than "It's impossible because …"
  • They lead to a discussion of solutions.
  • They come in small doses rather than vast set of objections.

Logical risks can be dealt with logically. Emotional risks need to be dealt with emotionally.


The opposite of values of intimacy and credibility is distance. The greater the distance is between two people, the less likely they are to trust each other. I found several types of distance:

  • Distance between what we say and what we mean
  • Distance between what we say and what is heard
  • Distance between your interests and my interests
  • Distance between my background, experience, and values and yours

What We Say and What We Mean

The business world uses words to avoid saying it straight. I would like to share with you some of the most difficult words in business:

  1. Just—This is used to make a huge request or error seem trivial as in: "Could you just do a complete project report (all lessons learned from a two-years-long project) by Monday?" It is a request best made late on a Friday evening.
  2. But—Remember, whatever is said before but. "That was a great presentation, but …" or "I would like to help, but …"
  3. From—Much used by advertisers, as in "Internet broadband connection from $15 per month for six months before the price jumps …" When you hear from be worried for your wallet.
  4. Might—It is used to achieve two things: first it sets up a negotiating position as in, "I might be able to do that if …" Second, it lays the groundwork for excusing failure later on: "I would have done it, if only …"
  5. Only—Closely related to just, it is an attempt to make a big request or problem seems small. "It was only a small error…" "We only dropped one nuclear bomb over New York …"
  6. Important (and urgent)—Used to puff up any presentation: "This important new project …" Important to whom?
  7. Strategic—Important, with bells on. Alternately used to justify something that has no financial justification at all.
  8. Right size, downsize, best shore, offshore, outsource, optimize—Different forms of saying that there are going to be layoffs.
  9. Thank you—This is positive, except for automated voices from call centers.
  10. Interesting—Fear this word. "The recession is certainly interesting."
  11. Opportunity—In business, all problems have become opportunities.
  12. Investment—Spending is bad, but investment is good. .

There is some good news in this. The more that jargon and weasel words become endemic, the less managers are trusted. This creates space for managers who used plain words and say what they mean to stand out from the rest of the pack. Sometimes, the art of influence is not too sophisticated. Do the basics right and you will see the difference.

What We Say and What Is Heard

Most of us do not set out to be dishonest. But we can inadvertently set expectations that we cannot meet, as shown in the section on credibility. The problem is not what we say; it is what our colleagues decide to hear. If in doubt, over communicate. Based on my experience as a manager implementing methodologies in organizations, I developed the following rules to cope with that problem. My rationale is as follows:

  • First time—Statement not heard amid the noise of other messages.
  • Second time—Statement heard but ignored.
  • Third time—Statement heard but not really believed.
  • Fourth time—Statement heard, believed, and not acted on.
  • Fifth time—Something might actually be done.

Besides repetition, consistency and accuracy are essential. Assume that people hear what they want to hear. They will misinterpret what you say to minimize the downside and maximize the upside. If you say something differently five times, they will hear whichever version they want to hear. If you are consistent, there is only one message they can hear.

My Interests and Your Interests

We need to show that we understand, respect, and if necessary adapt to the needs of other people. If all we ever do is to chase our own interests, then few people will feel the need to trust us. Organizations are designed around competing and conflicting interests. Each function and department has a different set of priorities and perspectives.

My Background and Your Background

I find it far easier to deal with managers, because I think I understand such people. Diversity sounds good in politicians' speeches, but even they do not practice it. The vast majority chooses to live in single-race marriages: daytime diversity leads to sunset segregation.

Even in organizations with a strong conformist culture, different people are … different. Age alone is a great diversifier in everything from personal priorities, experience, and taste in music. Asking a 60-year-old and a 20-year-old to listen to each other's music is normally a recipe for pain and disbelief.

The easiest way to reduce the background gap is to listen actively. Even if you do not share their worldview, by listening you show you respect them. You also learn about them and can find a few areas in common: build on what is common, not on what is different.


Trust is invisible. Trust needs to be earned, not claimed. It is the invisible force behind the invisible hand of influence. It has to be invisible. The more you openly talk about trust, the less trustworthy you seem. Some people carry the aura of trust around them; others do not. But there is no mystery to this aura. Sharing common values is essential to trust one another. Every manager needs to develop credibility. Credibility is built through a set of little details. Team members expect their leaders to have the courage of their convictions. Values, intimacy, and credibility build trust; risk and distance weaken trust. Trust is an absolute vital part of management. Trust is something that takes conscious effort to nurture and grow with your professional relationships. Why is it so important? Following are a few reasons.

  • People do business with people they trust—You are not going to do business with somebody you do not like or trust. The reverse is true as well. You will do business with someone you like and trust. This principle applies whether it's an internal colleague at your company or a potential client. People must have confidence that you will deliver on your commitments. Recently, I experienced the power of trust in a relationship. I needed to outsource some information technology work for our company. It wasn't a complicated job, but I wanted it to be done right. I knew exactly who to hire, someone I had known for a number of years. I liked their style, knew what they had done for others, and had complete trust in what they would do for me. There was only one catch: Their company policy required up-front payment; undoubtedly a result of having been burned multiple times in the past. It goes against every fiber of my being to pay for work up front, but in this case it didn't seem to matter. I knew the reason for the policy and that they would do the work. It was this high level of trust that enabled them to get my business, and do an outstanding job, by the way. That's the type of trust you need to apply in your relationships. A high level of trust will allow you to move seemingly unmovable mountains.
  • Builds bridges between now and later—How many times have you asked someone to trust you? It may be an individual concerned about his or her future with the company. Or, it may be an entire team uncertain of the future of the project it has been assigned. You may have a vision of the future that they do not. Bridging that gap is another area where the application of trust can come into play. You need people to have enough confidence and trust in you that they can bridge the gap between current and future circumstances. Your goal as a manager is to have your team follow you wherever you go. They may not totally understand the direction you are taking, and may even question it. But they will ultimately follow even if they are not quite sure where you are going.
  • Gives you a sense of pride—Having trust across your team also gives you a sense of pride. It's a good feeling to look in the mirror and know that you make the right, albeit tough, decisions that are for the greater good of everyone. Actions speak louder than words and your team will pick up on your ability to make trustworthy decisions no matter how big or how small they may be. Trust breeds loyalty within the team and engenders respect for you. Being trusted is one of the most valuable attributes you can have as a manager, so do not take it for granted.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

This article is an excerpt from:

If you want to be a successful manager, you need to become a person of influence. Without influence, there can be no success as a project manager. And, although all key success criteria point to the importance of developing soft skills as a project manager, few books exist about how to develop the power of influence for achieving better project and business results.

Filling this need, The Influential Project Manager: Winning Over Team Members and Stakeholders supplies detailed guidance on how to improve your influence skills to achieve better business results. It explains how to set and meet ambitious goals for you, your team, and your stakeholders.

The book describes how to listen actively to influence others and details how you can build partnerships that can pay dividends for a lifetime. Each chapter highlights real-world scenarios about a particular subject linked to the influencing skill being covered. Each chapter also includes practical forms, templates, helpful tips, and best practices to help you develop and refine your skills of influence.


About the Author

Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP, PMI-RMP, PMI Fellow, is the founder and managing partner of BUCERO PM Consulting. He managed IIL Spain for almost two years, and he was a senior project manager at Hewlett-Packard Spain (Madrid Office) for more than thirteen years.

Bucero is a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), ALI (Asociación de Licenciados, Ingenieros y Doctores en Informática) and AEIPRO (IPMA member). Bucero was the founder, sponsor, and president of PMI Barcelona, Spain Chapter, and he is an IPMA Assessor. He was a member of the Congress Project Action Team of PMI EMEA’s Congresses in Edinburgh (2005), Madrid (2006), and Budapest (2007). He graduated from PMI’s Leadership Institute Master Class 2007 in Atlanta at the PMI NA Global Congress. He was president of the PMI Madrid Spain Chapter for two years and has served as Component Mentor for Region 8 Southwest since 2011. He received the PMI Distinguished Contribution Award in 2010 for his long and varied body of work, and the PMI Fellow Award in 2011 from the PMI for his sustained contribution to the development of the profession internationally.


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