Frenemy Mine: Building Trust Between Colleagues

This post was originally published on the Canadian legal blog on March 19, 2104

I’ve been feeling somewhat guilty about my post last week regarding the Edelman Trust Barometer and perceptions about the legal profession. Several lawyers have since asked if I have any advice on how to build trusting relationships within their own firms, never mind on behalf of the profession. I’ve heard laments bemoaning the loss of collegiality, too.

The real expert in this regard is Robert F. Hurley, a professor at Fordham University in New York. Hurley leads the Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations housed at Fordham’s School of Business and is the author of a bestselling book, “The Decision to Trust”. He’s consulted to major corporations – including law firms – on related projects. His research is timely for lawyers facing increasing competition, decreasing loyalty and the never-ending need to prove credibility.

Hurley defines trust as “having ‘confident reliance’ in another party whenever an uncertain situation entails some vulnerability or risk.” He notes that in business, the larger question to ask is what kind of relationship is needed in order for the exchange to be productive.

Target the relationships that will benefit from increased trust and where there is some prospect for improvement.

Rather than post a full book review, I’ve outlined the 10 factors in Hurley’s “Decision to Trust” (DTM) model. It can be used to assess basic trust in people, teams and organizations. The simplest way to use the DTM is to consider a colleague whom you need to trust in order to work productively and then rate your answers on a scale from low to high.

Three trustor factors – are you able to trust someone else?

  1. Risk tolerance: do you have faith that others will keep up their end of the deal or do you require more assurance?
  2. Adjustment: do you view the world as a scary place or believe nothing bad will happen?
  3. Power: does the person have power over you or do you have the power to seek recourse for a betrayal?

Seven situational factors – can you address these to gain trust?

  1. Security: how high are the stakes? The higher they are, the more security is needed.
  2. Similarities: is there any common ground other than the firm you work at?
  3. Alignment of interests: how likely is the other person to serve your interest or act in their own self-interest?
  4. Benevolent concern: is the other person willing to put your interests above her own?
  5. Capability: is she competent and capable of getting the job done?
  6. Predictability and integrity: does she make and meet promises consistently? What’s her track record?
  7. Communication: poor communication – both in terms of frequency and quality – inevitably leads to distrust (think of the leader whose door is always closed or who deliberately holds back vital information others need to meet their commitments)

In speaking about how the decline of trust affects teams Hurley notes “an atmosphere of distrust ensures that more and more energy and attention are devoted to cautious self-protection rather than to productive exchange.” That might be good news for law firms looking for business. But it isn’t good news for law firms that want to stay in business.

Learn more: