Lead Others With a Trust Mindset

Getting beyond tribal trust takes an awareness of our 'in-group' mentality
December 6, 2019 Updated: December 6, 2019

It seems like everywhere we look, trust is breaking down. In the years I spent in trust-depleted villages as a Green Beret, this was something we had to contend with regularly as we worked to overcome trust gaps between tribes. Since I retired and started working with business leaders, I am seeing those same indicators of low trust—and you probably are too.

Recently, I was working with a company that was struggling with groups within their business that wouldn’t get along. They wouldn’t support each other, and certainly wouldn’t fight for each other. There was heavy tension between the groups and a complete lack of trust.

This has always been pervasive in human culture, but who gets hit with that in your business? You, the leader. They chirp in your ear and dump their issues on your lap. This can bleed you dry as a leader because it has a corrosive effect on your organization and an eroding effect on you.

At an institutional level, trust is dropping significantly. Percentage-wise, trust in Congress has dropped from the high seventies to low teens. Trust in the media has dropped by 25 to 30 points over the last several decades. Trust in law enforcement, banking, mortgages, and corporate leadership has gone down as well.

We’ve got to first understand this at a fundamental level. If we don’t know that people are losing trust in the institutions that have kept this country operating at the highest level, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. The second, more worrisome thing, is that trust at the community level is dropping even faster.

Gallup took a poll in 1972 that asked, “Do you trust your neighbor?” One-third of Americans said “no.” Today, the same poll shows that it’s up to two-thirds. But you don’t really need that poll; all you have to do is look around. In your neighborhood, do you see more privacy fences or front porches? Look at how people treat strangers. Watch the news for 30 seconds, and you’ll get a sense of the erosion of community-level trust. Walk this back to your business, and it’s plain to see why you’re having conflict between your personnel. If we don’t take responsibility for this, trust will continue to erode in our organizations.

We have aquifers in Florida; underground rivers that cut through the bedrock. At some point, a sinkhole opens up. When you think about erosion of trust, that’s what’s happening. It’s eroding underneath your feet, underneath your business, and underneath your community. Eventually, it will open up and suck you down.

The first part of developing a trust mindset is understanding that there are different kinds of trust. The trust that we dealt with in tribal societies is called bonding trust. That’s when you trust your family and tribe, and you don’t trust anyone else. It creates this in-group/out-group dynamic, and it’s been around forever.

Bridging trust is is another form of trust. A couple hundred years ago in the United States, bridging trust started to arrive on the shoulders of that bonding trust as a byproduct of a free society. Bridging trust allows you to trust beyond your in-group and trust other individuals who are different from you.

It’s bridging trust that’s eroding. The ability to trust beyond our in-group is fading back into bonding trust, where we only trust our in-group; everyone else is an out-group. We only trust the people who look, think, and act like us. Bonding trust is on the rise in the United States, and that’s a problem. You can’t build a high performing country, culture, or business around bonding trust, because the in-group/out-group dynamic will tear you apart.

As leaders, we have to employ the knowledge of this trust mindset to diffuse these situations. Bonding trust is where we come from; it’s our natural default. We’ll always default to our in-groups if we get scared or cornered, so we have to bridge beyond that. We have to create a common, unifying vision of something that’s bigger than any single in-group.

How do we do this?

First, we need to shift our mindset to recognize these in- and out-groups. As a leader, you should be looking around, noticing where in-groups and out-groups pop up, and the resulting tensions. Identify the formal or informal leaders in those groups and bring them together. Talk to them about the overarching culture and bridging vision that you’re building and ask them to help you build it. You’ll be surprised at the answers that you’ll get.

The good news is that trust can be restored, but it cannot be done without leadership. Leaders have to build their mindset around trust, lean into it, understand the different levels of trust, and always look for opportunities to bridge beyond the in-groups.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com