The 3 Pillars of Trust and How to Utilize Them to Strengthen Workplace Culture

The 3 Pillars of Trust and How to Utilize Them to Strengthen Workplace Culture

As human beings, we are attuned to detect trustworthiness. It’s often a gut feeling we get about a person, an organization, a brand, a place – almost anything. So how do we make sure that the people around us find us trustworthy? How do we broach tough conversations about our own areas for improvement, or someone else’s, without it going south or just getting awkward? And what can trust really do to transform our workplace and our work relationships? Thomas Cox, business consultant and author of over 300 articles on leadership, joins the podcast to discuss the three pillars of trust and delve into how seemingly minor interactions and decisions can have huge impacts on others’ perception of the kind of person you are.

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MP3 File Run Time: 37:01

Brandon: Welcome to the Human Resources for Small Business Podcast, this is your host Brandon Laws. Today I’m with Thomas Cox, the discoverer of The Only Universal Truth of Leadership. He has consulted with many large companies including IBM and he’s the author of over 300 articles on leadership. You can read a lot of his work at and most recently, we did a webinar together which was how we came up with the topic for the day.

Thomas did a great webinar on the unspoken language of accountability and if you want to see his work there and see him just rock it on the webinar, you can go to the Webinar Recordings page of our website and listen to it there.

Thomas, it’s awesome to have you!

Thomas: Brandon, I always enjoy talking with you on these important topics and you’ve got such a great audience, people who really care about human effectiveness. They care about their people and making them better and that’s why I loved the webinar so much and I’m really looking forward to the podcast.

Brandon: Yeah. So when we got together for the webinar, we were like, Trust. We haven’t done anything on trust! And we got really excited about that so we decided to connect and do something on trust. I wanted to ask you whether or not we are naturally trusting as a human species?

Thomas CoxThomas: I think human beings are built for trust and cooperation and we are also built to detect when our trust partners are ripping us off and letting us down. Cooperation is such a powerful technique. Cooperation is so bred into our bones that there will always be people, or people plus a certain opportunity, where someone will try to take advantage of us. So in order to really be good at cooperation, you’ve also got to be just a little bit cautious, a little bit self-protective, a little bit careful, and I think the reason – maybe right now today as we’re recording this – that people feel trust is at an all-time low is actually because we need it so much and we’re actually kind of used to having quite a lot of trust. I mean, when was the last time somebody sold you poisoned food? When was the last time on purpose?

Brandon: Never!

Thomas: Right! And you can go down the line. The vast majority of our lives are spent in highly-trusting relationships and – this is even more interesting – highly-trusting transactions, right? Because humans have kind of a small circle of people we know pretty darn well.

You and I, we’ve interacted dozens and dozens of times. I consider you a warm acquaintance or a distant friend or somewhere in that region, but you’re not a stranger. So when you and I interact, we’re building our relationship over time.

You’ve got space in your head for 180 people, plus or minus 20, that you have that kind of relationship with over time. 180, that’s Dunbar’s number, and that’s how much our brains can hold. Beyond that, it’s all transactions and this is what’s so wacky – we trust people we’ve never met all the time, in part because of things like brand. I don’t drink Coke anymore, but back when I did, when I would consume beverages that contained sugar, I would do it without having a second thought about opening a Coke and drinking it because I had just come to accept that the bottler was probably on the up and up and the company was on the up and up and I could trust that brand. The brand was a stand-in for the individual, and you and I create and destroy trust all the time with our relationships. When we do it transactionally again and again, our brand starts to suffer.

I’m distinguishing here between our relationships and our transactions – relationship inner circle and transactions with the strangers. For people listening, both of those are going to be crucially important because your coworkers have relationships with you; your customers may have a transaction with you. So while people rely on and get to know you better in relationship, your coworkers, your boss, your subordinates, your suppliers, your regular customers, they’ve all got relationships with you and they can get to know you and they can either get really sour or really sweet on you, depending on how you behave.

But the buying public, they will judge you on their most recent transaction and that’s who you are. They got a bad bottle of Coke, Coke is just evil. The whole company, top to bottom, side to side. You see how quick we are to judge? That’s why I think understanding the mechanics of trust is so incredibly important and largely because we live on it, rely on it, but we don’t really understand it.

Brandon Laws, Director of Marketing, Xenium HRBrandon: The point about transactions is so right. In Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he talked about the emotional bank account. I think what you’re saying is very similar to that – when you relate it to business, a brand, or people, those micro-transactions and what they do, whether it’s positive or negative, those take a toll on that emotional bank account and the level of trust that you eventually have in them.

I want to ask you this – when you think about how we were born into a family that we pretty much automatically trust because those transactions that are happening are usually positive. With friends it’s kind of the same thing. Maybe the neighbors, community, co-workers, every group is a little different. Do you think one group is harder to trust than another? You talked about strangers, but coworkers, leaders, those are the people we’re seeing a lot of nowadays in the workplace.

Thomas: Right, and we read the news and there are breakdowns in trust right and left. This bank is ripping off their customers, that executive is stealing from the firm, this other company is polluting and lying about it, on and on and on. What I would love to have our listeners take away from this is that there are three ways we create trust with the people around us and I’m going to give you a couple of tools.

A way to think about trust that’s going to empower you both to show up as highly trustworthy in the eyes of other people and to debug what it is you’re not trusting about that other person so you can actually ask them to change. And maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but at least you now know what to ask for. These are the building blocks of trust. There are three building blocks and I will just keep repeating this again and again:

One is reliability, one is competence, and one is benevolence. Reliability is, Do I show up on time? Do I do the things I say I do? If I say I will be there 2 o’clock on Tuesday, can you look at your watch at 1:59 and confidently expect me to walk in at 2:00? In some cases, maybe I’m going to be there a few minutes early because that’s my style.

When you are so used to me being super reliable, that part of you relaxes and you begin to trust. Reliability is the first thing we can demonstrate when it comes to trust. The absolute first thing is where most people fail. How many times have you called a company, left a voicemail, and nobody ever got back to you?

Brandon: Too frequently.

Thomas: It’s so bad. Maybe this is a Pacific Northwest thing, I think this is happening more in our neck of the woods here in the Washington and Oregon area than maybe in other parts of the country. I call it Pacific Northwest passive-aggressiveness where people don’t say no, they just ignore you.

Brandon: You’re right, I think you’re spot on!

SkyscrapersThomas: True story, there’s this company here in town. Sort of prestigious consultancy, they’ve got gorgeous offices. They were hosting an event and I went. I got to kind of like them, I was impressed with them. I wanted to talk to the director of the practice locally and get to know them a little bit, maybe I can refer clients to him, maybe I can find ways to help him out. You know, give a good impression, right?

Left him a voicemail, sent him an email, left him a voicemail. No reply, no reply, no reply. Waited a week, another email. No reply. Waited a week, another voicemail. No reply. Left a voicemail in the general mailbox. No reply. I tried to get in touch with another one of his colleagues, a mid-level consultant. Same company and in parallel, call, email, call. No reply from either of them for a month.

Brandon: And here, you’re trying to help them out.

Thomas: I was like, really? What if I were a client who wanted to hire you?

Brandon: I think what has happened is – I get a ton of sales calls. So when I pick up the phone, so often the person on the other side is just selling something, that’s why my trust level is low.

Thomas: Sure, sure, sure. I get that. If somebody calls you and they leave a voicemail and you don’t call them back, you’re saying something about the kind of person you are as well as how you hold them. If someone leaves me an unsolicited phone call, unsolicited voicemail, they want to sell me something, I have no problem ignoring that call.

Brandon: Good distinction. Yeah.

Thomas: But if I’ve met you, we’ve exchanged business cards, and I leave you a voicemail and an email, and I say, Hey, did you want to talk some more? If you did that to me, I would reply to you and I would say, Dude, I have no time for that. I am really sorry. The answer is no and it’s for a reason. I’m flattered that you want to meet, I’m sorry I can’t, but I’m delighted you reached out to me and I’m hoping that in a month or two, it might calm down around here.

You see how much more respected you feel when I reply to you? That’s how reliability plays out. Now when it comes to reliability and whether I can predict this person’s behavior, I expect if I referred a potential customer to these turkeys that that customer will be treated just like I was. You see how we generalize from our own experiences?

So when I say trust rests on three pillars and reliability is the first, that’s what I mean. It doesn’t take hours and hours to be reliable. I can reliably call you back and say, Nope, can’t do it. Sorry, bye. Boom. I have replied and I’ve shown you the dignity of taking you seriously and replying to your email and voicemail.

Again, reliability is also another word for accountability and we did a whole webinar on accountability and all that really means, accountability, is that your words and your actions match. Some people call that integrity – your words and your actions match.

Brandon: It’s crazy to me that we have to do webinars and podcasts and read books on accountability when it’s as simple as what you just stated. It’s showing up. It’s doing what you say you’re going to do. It’s crazy. It’s so fundamental to me.

Thomas: Yes and no! And Brandon, part of it has to do with the fact that you’re a very solid guy and you were brought up in a certain way and you’re embedded in a culture that’s a fairly direct communication culture. What if you were from an Asian culture where communication is very indirect? It’s very rare, for instance, for a Japanese person to say no. They have a word for no, it’s almost never used. But they have versions of yes that mean no. I was amazed to hear that!

Brandon: I’ve read about that before, but never experienced it personally.

Thomas: Yeah! When I was living in Chicago working for a PR agency, GolinHarris, we had a big Japanese client. We hired a guy to come in and tell us about Japanese culture and this guy explained it. They won’t say no to your face, they will say a really indirect, soft, Yeah, sure. One of these days, maybe we can get around to that. That’s no. As opposed to, Oh, totally! Get your calendar out. Let’s make this happen. That’s more like a yes.

So they’re talking, they’re talking. At the end of it, our owner, the top guy, says, Hey, that’s great. Would you be willing to help me some more on this? Asking for free consulting, basically. The guy said, Yeah, well, maybe. I might possibly. Gave him a classic Japanese no and he thought it was a yes because he wasn’t paying attention!

Friends Building TrustTwo people who share cultural assumptions can communicate beautifully. When you and I have different assumptions, it goes to heck really fast because according to my culture, I was clearly saying no in a very polite, indirect way, and you thought it was this weird and squishy yes. So our expectations are mismatched and the setting of expectations and the meeting of expectations are what reliability is.

That’s why we have to have classes on them because we come from different families and systems, we come from different communication styles, and some of us, frankly, feel terrified to say no, at times, or we feel we have to say yes to make the other person feel good in the moment. Then we’re like, Oh, what did I just sign up for? And we overload ourselves with work. The people who say yes to everything get overwhelmed with work. Every office has at least one of those.

When I say trust rests on three pillars and reliability is one, oh my gosh, we could spend the entire podcast digging into the depths of reliability. But I want to touch on the other two. If you really want to get into reliability and accountability, that webinar can be replayed, it was really good.

Brandon: Yeah.

Thomas: So let’s talk about the next two. Reliability is doing what you said you would do. But that’s not enough for people to truly trust you deeply, because what if you’re not competent? What if you don’t have the expertise? What if you can’t bring the heat? I could show up on time for the podcast or for a speech or for a class and hey, Tom is so reliable. That’s great! But when I get up there, I don’t deliver the goods.

Everyone has that web developer they tried to hire who says, Oh, I can do that for you. I could totally do that for you! And they can’t do it.

Brandon: Been there, done that.

Thomas: You’re like, What? They replied rapidly to email. They showed up for meetings!

Brandon: Shows they’re not busy. They don’t have any work!

Thomas: They might seem pretty solid, but somehow the competence just isn’t there. If you’ve been doing your job for more than a few years, you’ve probably got the competence thing going and you can ask people, Hey, how am I doing? What’s something I can do better at? Or you can just look through your email for the last two months and find which email threads involve problems and mistakes and things you could have done better. That’s a great crash course on how to grow your expertise.

I don’t spend a lot of time working on that one because most people intuitively want to be good, they want to do well, and they tend to work on their craft. If you’re working on your expertise, I think you will probably be fine, and you have to be sure that the expertise you think you’re bringing is the expertise they thought you were going to bring. That might be one area to check in.

So reliability is huge. Competence, pretty straightforward. Third leg, I call it benevolence. It’s a way of showing that you care. You’re going to put the other person’s agenda ahead of your own agenda some of the time, not all the time. You’re not their servant, you’re not a martyr, you’re not going to do their work before your own.

But it’s also not never. Not always, not never. Try to imagine this. You’re trying to trust me. I’m highly competent and highly reliable. But I’m really, really selfish. It’s the Tom Show starting Tom! I will engage in a win-win or a win-lose as long as I win. Whoa! Once you learn that about me, your trust in me is very limited.

Brandon: Yeah. It doesn’t matter if you have the other two things.

Thomas: Yeah. Every time we shake hands, you’re going to stop and count your fingers to see if I stole one. Every deal we make, you’re going to have to have it reviewed by lawyers. Everything I offer you, you got to like sniff it, to see if it’s poisoned.

So without that benevolence, the other two – it just means that you’re good at serving your interests. What about serving mine? So you demonstrate benevolence in part by doing things like – you know, Mr. Cox, you’re going a little fast here, but I’m going to let you off with a warning. Oh, thank you! Just this time. Giving people a pass occasionally on a rule especially if they show remorse or they’re serious is one of the ways that we demonstrate power and show that we’re also reasonably benevolent. Or, I see you’re really struggling here. Let me take a little time to work with you on it.

Or, I’ll tell you what, I don’t think we got as much done in this hour as we could have. I’m not going to charge you a full fee for this last hour. You admitted you didn’t do all your work coming in and, frankly, I think I could have been better prepared as well. Giving up revenue, I don’t recommend it! Your sales managers out there are going, No! Never! Never do that! But that is one way to do it.

Another is just going the extra mile for somebody. Interestingly enough, when you let somebody down, how you handle that can actually build more trust than if you never had a problem in the first place.

Let me explain. Let’s say I’m supposed to take care of some tasks for you, Brandon. You trusted me, you delegated this thing to me or you’ve hired me or whatever, and I’ve got to get this thing to you by Thursday, so you can get stuff done on Friday.

Then Thursday comes and Thursday goes and I’m like, I can’t make it. So as soon as I know I’m late, I don’t wait. As soon as I know. I might even call you on a Wednesday if I know by then and say, Brandon, look, I’m super sorry. I’m going to be late, and I know that puts you in a hole. I’m willing to come in this weekend and help you, because I know I just threw you into working the weekend. So sorry for that. I’m going to come in and help you this weekend as well, to help you get through this.

Now, depending on the relationship, maybe neither one of us really expects me to do that. If I can do the unexpected extra thing, it shows I’m paying more attention, it shows that I have a little copy of Brandon in my head and I care about that Brandon and I show that I care through my actions, through my attention, through my thoughtfulness. Those are the things that tell you that when it comes to that arm’s length transaction, I show that you matter to me.

MedicationWhen the Tylenol scare came and there was that poisoning, some Tylenol was tampered with and a woman died, it turned out it was her husband who murdered her. But there was a lot of fear that Tylenol had been tampered with in the market. They literally pulled every bottle off the shelf including the ones that they knew were perfectly safe because they knew they were safe, but we didn’t know they were safe.

They took a huge financial hit and all their financial analysts were saying, Dude, that’s stupid! We’re going to waste all this money.

Brandon: Yeah.

Thomas: It’s a perfectly good product! But they said, You know, we can’t really say that our customers matter to us if we’re like, yeah, these are safe. No, you’ve got to have confidence. You the customer must have confidence in our product. If you aren’t confident, we’re just going to pull it. It takes a big financial hit but that’s worth it to us. That’s an investment in a relationship right there.

Brandon: And it seems like if you fail on that accountability side, at least at the transactional level, like in the case of Tylenol, if you can show you can make up for it in caring and really show some remorse for what you’re doing and do the right thing, I think people then will forgive you and you can gain that trust back in the same case.

Thomas: People trusted the makers of Tylenol more after that event than before because they compared the actual behavior with what they expected a typical company would probably do in the same circumstance. They’re like, Wow! I don’t even know if my employer would have done that, and you did. They suffered financially and it was very difficult for the company emotionally. The employees were mortified that somebody had been harmed by their product. They make things that help people.

When in a crisis, you can come through showing a lot of benevolence, a lot of confidence, and you repair your reliability, people’s trust in you can skyrocket. I don’t recommend that you screw up on purpose just to have that opportunity! Fortunately, most of us don’t have to do it on purpose. We will manage to create a few opportunities just by accident. Nevertheless, reliability, competence, benevolence. Work on those three in yourself and others will trust you.

What do you do with the other person to show that you will trust them? I wanted to give you three quick tools you can use with anybody around you where you’re having some struggle. You think, Wow, I really don’t trust him as much as I wish I could.

The first is to understand what it is that they’re doing and not doing that’s making you feel that way, right? You feel the feeling without always knowing the why. Trust your feeling. It’s an ancient part of the brain, it’s highly attuned to the need for trust. Your spider sense will tingle, your little radar will go “bing” even if you don’t know why. But if you want to shift the relationship, you’ve got to know why.

So ask yourself, Are they letting me down when it comes to reliability, are they letting me down as far as their competence, or do I feel let down with regard to their benevolence? Which of those three is it that most feels like it’s out of whack with this person?

Now I’ve done this many times with a room full of people. We’d be working on trust building and understanding how trust works, the mechanics of it. And I’d say, Think of a person that you wish you had a better trusting relationship with. Write the name down. Ok, now, write down a few words to sort of express the nature of the issue between you and the other person.

Then I make them think about it. Is it reliability, if only they were more reliable it would be different? Is it competence, if only they were more competent, it would be different? Or is it benevolence, if only they were more caring about someone besides themselves, then I would trust them more?

That’s how you start to debug it and then you can say, What visible behavior in the world would you like them to show you, so that you could trust them even more? And that’s the thing you ask for.

When you feel that you can’t trust somebody, it’s hard to say, Hey, I really want to trust you more. Could you be more trustworthy, please? Thanks so much.

Brandon: That’s not going to work.

Thomas: Yeah it’s like, what do you want me to do?

Brandon: Yeah, be specific. You could frame it up in one of these pillars

Thomas: Absolutely. Let’s say they’re highly reliable and highly benevolent, just not very competent. You could say, Hey, I really appreciate how much I can count on you to show up when you say you’re going to show up and I know you really care about me. I’m really feeling kind of let down in a certain way and it’s starting to affect how I view you and I figured I should tell you, because I would want you to tell me. Is this a good time to talk? And if they agree to talk you will say, Look, just to recap, I like this and I like this. I’m just struggling over here. When you did thing X, when you delivered this code that didn’t work, it really made me start to worry about how good you are. You want to say the word “competent”. It sounds really harsh but that is the point you’re making. I’m wondering if the level of expertise that I need is higher than the level you’re bringing, that maybe I’m setting you up for failure.

A culture of trustGet that out on the table. If you’re going to build higher and higher trust in your relationships, you’re going to have to step into some uncomfortable conversations. Things are going to have to get real. You’re going to have to share what was previously not shared, you’re going to have to make visible what previously was not visible. That is your internal state, your evaluation of them in these three areas. Then you’re going to ask for what you want.

Brandon: It seems to me that if you’re going to take this approach with the pillars, it’s so much easier to do this as an internal exercise and to say like, What can I do differently so I could be trusted amongst my peers, my family, my friends?

Do you feel like people will go the distance and flip it around and frame up a difficult discussion based on these three pillars? In your experience, are people using it in that way or are they using it as a self-accountability thing?

Thomas: I would say the most powerful thing you can do with this is start by asking them how you can be even better. I would say 80% of the time, they will get excited and enthusiastic and say, Yes, let’s do me. How can I be better? Hey dude, you opened the door and now I can tell you what I want.

But don’t do it in a manipulative way! Here’s the thing, the more I trust you, the more I feel a sense of trust towards you, the more you can tell me anything and I will take it well, because I trust you. You’re highly reliable, you’re highly competent, and I know you have my best interest at heart.

We tend to get defensive when we’re hearing stuff from people we don’t fully trust. So even if you want to have a hard conversation with somebody else, you still want to start with yourself. Play the inside game. I’ve done this with clients more than once, it’s part of the routine now. They will say, Hey, I always want to make sure I’m improving my game at all times. Maybe I’ve told them about trust, maybe I haven’t. I’ll introduce it, I’ll say, Hey, if you had to pick the one thing I could do even better at, if I could raise my game in either reliability or competence or benevolence, which one would you pick for me to work on? What’s one thing I could do even better that will help you trust me even more than you already do? It’s part of my internal game of self-improvement.

I had one guy who said benevolence. I’m like, really? Tell me more, because I thought I was pretty darn benevolent. He said, Yeah. Tom, I don’t understand your pricing model. I don’t see how you make money. When you recommend something, are you getting like finder’s fees under the table?

Well, if you don’t know that, of course you would have questions! I never knew that was even in his head until I broached this. I never take finder’s fees and since then, when I do have an affiliate relationship, I just disclose it upfront on my website to make it really clear. If you’re a consultant, how the money flows into your hands is crucial to people trusting your advice. I’m so glad he told me that! It was already inside of him, I didn’t know about it until he said it, so I couldn’t address it until we got it out. I would say that would be the number one thing that listeners here can do to make yourself even more trusted by your parents and your kids and your boss and your subordinates and your peers. Every so often ask the question, and only ask for one thing you can improve on. If you say, what can I do better, they will give you a list of eight. I did that once, I said, what can I do better? The list came pouring forth. I’m like, slow down!

Brandon: Oh, yeah, like this is too much to handle!

Thomas: I don’t want to set the expectation that I’m going to do anything differently tomorrow. I might struggle to just do one! So ask the one thing and then write it down and then you better show some movement on that front because now you’ve asked for it. What expectations have you implicitly set? Someone might say hey, Thomas, I would really appreciate you showing up on time or early for a meeting instead of being five minutes late all the time.

I could say, I’m not late! or, Ah, five minutes early, gotcha. Ok, I’m going to work on that. They’re testing me, right? I’m going to prove now that I heard them and I’m going to change my behavior.

I had one friend who became convinced I was perpetually late because of two high profile instances where I was and she ignored all the ones where I wasn’t. So every time we met for like the next five meetings, I’d say, Hey, notice what time it is. Hey, notice what time we were going to meet. I’m five minutes early, right?

I wasn’t trying to be a jerk about it, but I really needed her to notice I was being reliable so that I could have the reputation in her mind that my own behavior was actually earning me.

Brandon: If a company wants to build a culture of trust and master these three pillars, what do you think are the best ways to integrate it? One-on-ones and performance reviews come to mind, casual conversations. How have you integrated some of these pillars into workplaces that you’ve worked with?

Thomas: I would say that there’s one precondition for all these kinds of conversations about reliability and competence and benevolence, and it has to do with psychological safety. Many of the listeners probably know that Google spent several years and millions of dollars doing an internal study to find out which of their teams were the most effective teams. They found five variables that predicted team excellence, the most important of which was psychological safety, meaning, can we have tough conversations? Can I try something new? Can I make a mistake? Can I raise my hands and ask for help? Can I disagree with everybody else on the team? Can I do all of those things without having my membership in the team put at risk? Will I be loved and accepted and kept in the embrace and even in the love of the team as I’m doing these things that can be challenging to do?

The more the leader makes it safe to have the hard conversations, the more able people are to talk about reliability, competence, and so forth. That’s psychological safety. It’s a huge precondition. We might talk about that for another podcast because there’s a lot to it and, having done that, if you’ve got a culture where we say the hard truth gently, if we can be hard on issues and very soft on people, if we presume good intentions from most people most of the time and say hey Fred, I have no doubt that you’re doing your best, but you’re doing some things that are starting to make me question how much I can count on you. I really want to clear the air between us. Can we talk about that?

That’s the kind of approach that is much more likely to work than, I need you to change your behavior.

Brandon: You don’t give them a reason to change.

Thomas: Or they change out of fear or they change their surface behavior, but they don’t do any kind of introspection and they don’t get to the root of it. I believe that every culture can be an outstanding performance culture. I think every company can be an amazing company to work for and it rests on the fact that most people, 99% of people, want to show up and do a good job and be appreciated. That means the work itself has to have at least a little bit of interest to it. If the work is boring, you’ve got to enrich that work so it’s a little bit intellectually challenging. You’ve got create enough emotional safety that we can have hard conversations about what’s not working and I think you’ve got to hold up a vision of excellence and challenge people to move towards it.

I had one guy, Mike, who was one of my students in my Becoming a Best Boss class and I challenged him. He said, Oh, I can’t get these guys to improve. I said, Well, do you guys even agree on what good work is? I have a workbook called Manager’s First Duty and it walks you through how to have this conversation with your team.

A workshop on trustSo at a staff meeting he asked, What is good work for us? What do our clients really want from us? He figured he’d need ten minutes for that conversation. The team took an hour! They got so excited, they were on fire. They never had this conversation before and they ended up over the course of several weeks of talking about this, coming up with a model that said, excellent work for us is this and a perfect instance of us supporting a client is this. This is what good is.

I invited him to measure their performance now that they defined or helped co-define what work is. If they go in the wrong direction and they’re like, excellence is like perfect code. Dude, the client doesn’t want perfect. They’re not going to pay for that, that takes 10 times longer than good enough. You’re whacked. I think you’re wrong. You can challenge him from a position of love and safety and drive to a true definition of what the client values.

When you get that shared definition of good work, man, the team just lights up and they will go to the wall for you, if you let them. There’s this spiral you have to work through. You’ve got to show up as trustable, you’ve got to learn how to trust them. You’ve got to create psychological safety to have the hard trust conversations. Then you have to use that psychological safety and the high trust conversation to talk about the work and talk about excellence and talk about problems. Then you need to have a good problem-solving method. Anyway, now we’re talking about my entire Best Boss curriculum, which is probably out of scope for this conversation!

Brandon: Don’t give it all away! You want people to go to the class too!

Thomas: It takes two hours a week for 8 weeks just to get people through their first pass through this material and you really want to master these steps. So I’m not worried about giving it away! I do want to make sure we stick close to our trust topic, though.

I know we’ve talked about the three pillars – reliability, competence, benevolence. We’ve talked about how you can ask for feedback and how you can use the three pillars to help you understand a relationship if you’re in trouble. We’ve talked about how you can create a culture of higher trust by understanding what trust is made up of. What else do you want to talk about Brandon?

Brandon: I mean I think you covered everything! I really want you to kind of frame up why do we want a culture of trust? What is the effect going to look like? What are the interactions going to feel like? Are we going to attract more people that are like us? Are we going to do business faster and better? What are the effects of all this?

Thomas: Thank you, great question. So remember, trust isn’t blind trust. I don’t mean you’re just hoping for the best or just trusting everybody regardless. That’s an invitation to be taken advantage of. When you can trust people very highly on a basis of knowing they are trustworthy, things can go much faster. You don’t have to write that CYA memo where you sort of cover your posterior. You don’t have to explain, rationalize, and justify everything in triplicate.

You don’t have to have as much bureaucracy or checking of details. It’s a way of engineering quality into the conversations early. Let’s say you’ve got a very highly accountable person that you trust very highly. You can say, Hey. Will you do this for me by Tuesday? They say yes and based on their track record, you’re done! You don’t have to go back and remind them three times. You get to relax because you know they’re going to do it and they’re going to do it with quality and if they have a question, they will come to you. You only know that because you trust them and you only trust them because they’ve demonstrated that.

The high trust organization is a high speed, high quality organization. It outperforms competitors. In fact, if you looked at the statistics in the opening chapter to Stephen M. R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust.

Brandon: Great book.

A group of employees working together on laptopsThomas: Right? He points out that when you measure trust levels, it correlates very highly with higher sales, higher profits, higher stock price, and a much higher level of, frankly, happiness and fulfillment at work. We spend more awake time with our co-workers than with our families. I think if you can move into a culture of higher trust from wherever you are currently, your people will perform better. They will be happier, more fulfilled. You will be able to recruit and retain top people and your customers are going to be able to tell the difference as well. So I think that’s absolutely worth doing for its own sake and it’s worth doing for the sake of the business.

Brandon: Well said. Well, hey Thomas, this has been an awesome discussion. We’re going to have to wrap up just because we’re out of time. Where could people read more of your work and figure out what you’re doing, attend some of your live workshops? Anything you want to tell listeners before we wrap up?

Thomas: Well, my main website is My newsletter comes out once a month with actionable guidance. Everything I write is timeless and is intended to be action-oriented. So it gives you a new way of looking at things and/or some specific behaviors you can engage in that will drive new and better results. I do have a talk that I encourage people to attend called The Only Universal Truth of Leadership and it reveals a new way of thinking about leadership that unlocks a completely new way of leading your teams and driving for excellence. So you can see details for that on And of course, you should always check the webinar page at for some of the replays of my recent webinars with you.

Brandon: Yeah! Actually, I was going to say, we did a 45-minute webinar on The Only Universal Truth of Leadership about a year ago and you just killed it on that one. I want to encourage people to go check out that and then attend the live workshops that you’re doing on The Only Universal Truth of Leadership. It’s great content, you’ve got to check it out.

Thomas: Thanks so much, Brandon. I really appreciate being here and I look forward to the next one.

Brandon: Thanks Thomas.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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