Establishing trusted relationships

‘So, what is trust? We could say that a person or organization trusts another when both sides have reason to expect that neither will take advantage of the other, and, whenever possible, will even do things that advance the other’s interests.’  Brigitte Jordan

Trusted relationships are critical, in every profession and in every walk of life. In my latest book “Managing Product = Managing Tension” I go into the detail of four key ways in which we can both create and maintain trusted relationships: influencing without authority, shared goals, transparency and psychological safety.

Influence without authority

We will need to invest time and effort in understanding what makes the other person tick. To do so, we can use so-called ‘currencies’ which we can exchange to create a situation based on mutual trust. The concept of currencies is derived from the ‘Influence Without Authority Model’ by Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford. This model is based on exchange and reciprocity – making trades for what you desire in return for what the other person desires. There are a number of potential currencies that one can use to trade: inspiration, task, position and personal currencies:  

Inspiration-related currencies ‒ These currencies reflect inspirational goals which provide relevance and meaning to the work that a person does.

Task-related currencies ‒ These currencies are all about getting the job done and relate directly to the satisfaction a person derives from completing a task.

Position-related currencies ‒ These currencies enhance a person’s position in the organisation and, thereby, indirectly aid the person’s ability to accomplish or advance a career.

Relationship-related currencies ‒ These currencies cover building or strengthening the relationship with someone.

Personal currencies ‒ These currencies could form an infinite list of idiosyncratic needs. They are valued because they enhance the individual’s sense of self. They may be derived from task or interpersonal activity.

For example, some people that I have worked with put a lot of value on doing work that has value and meaning and where I successfully used ‘inspiration-related currencies’ to build and maintain trusted relationships. Other people, by contrast, cared less about meaningful work, rather they got much more satisfaction from getting the job done. With the latter group, ‘task-related currencies’ proved to be highly effective.

Both inspiration and task-related currencies are positive ones, and can be used to build genuine, trusted relationships. If we want to influence successfully without authority, we will need to devote time and effort to understanding the other person, what they value and how we can accommodate these values through the relevant currencies. Exchanging currencies, if done with genuine intentions, forms the heart of any trusted relationship.

Shared goals

‘Teams who dream together, achieve together’ is how Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins frames the importance of having a shared goal. Canva is an eight-year-old online design company valued at $1bn which places a lot of significance on having the company driving towards a larger, shared vision: ‘the bigger the vision, the easier it is to have a goal-driven culture,  as each “goal” is simply a step towards that bigger mission’ according to Perkins.

To be clear, team members might still disagree about how to best achieve a goal or vision, but such disagreement is a lot less likely to act as a showstopper with respect to product success if team members have all ‘enrolled’ in the same outcome. As long as we all trust each other to be acting in the interest of the same end result, we can have healthy disagreements on how to best to get there.

When I asked Kristina Walcker-Mayer, Chief Product Officer at Bitwala, about her views on having shared goals when building products, she explained: ‘From my experience, the most successful outcomes have been created by a deep understanding of the WHY from a business and customer perspective and communication of change and iterations during the process.’ Even daily, more tactical product conversations such as ‘which content to show first?’ or ‘should we optimise on improving our personalisation or drive direct sales’ benefit from a shared set of goals, says Walcker-Mayer. ‘In these cases, it helps to have a common understanding on a company level of the initiatives that we want to invest in the long term and how much time we give ourselves in order to evaluate the success of those initiatives.’ From this point of alignment we can start building trusted relationships and allow each other to be open and vulnerable with one another.


I bet that when you are reading this, you are thinking ‘I am 100% transparent, always open and clear with everyone.’ More often than not, we find ourselves dealing with situations where we have not been as fully transparent as we might think, or someone else has not been fully open or clear with us. The more frequently this happens the more likely we are to start feeling a sense of distrust. Why wasn’t I aware of this information? Was it a simple oversight or am I not trusted with this knowledge?

When companies grow, it becomes even harder to keep everybody within the organisation informed or to continue to be fully open with people outside your business. Personally, I find it much easier to be open with everyone instead of having to constantly remember who I have told what … Moreover, the benefits of transparency affect both the organisation and the individuals within it:

Decision making ‒ We can make better decisions if we’re aware of all relevant decision factors. I am pretty sure we have all been in meetings that felt ‘asymmetric’, purely because the participants didn’t have the same pieces of information. These kinds of meetings always feel like they go on for ages because we first need to make sure we all tackle a problem from the same perspective, considering the same data points. If we want to delegate decisions to teams or individuals, we need to ensure we supply them with all the information needed to make decisions.

Collaboration ‒ Not only does the speed of collaboration improve if we are transparent with each other, sharing knowledge and data with each other contributes to a shared sense that ‘we are in this together’. Transparency signifies that we trust each other with all knowledge ‒ sensitive or not ‒ and that we need to use this shared understanding to work together effectively.

Trust ‒ Transparency is an important instrument in setting up and maintaining trusted relationships. Employees are more likely to feel a true part of the organisation if they are fully aware of what is happening within the business and the rationale for its actions. Equally, today’s customers increasingly appreciate brands being open with them about cost, origin of the materials used, etc. For instance, take Everlane ‒ a mostly online fashion company with a couple of US stores ‒ which shares all the costs of its production process with its customers as well as the names and locations of its factories. Through this level of transparency, Everlane sets out to instil trust among its customers with respect to the origin of its products, and its manufacturing conditions.

Morale ‒ I once worked at a company where a number of people worked on a new product which carried the code name “Project Trojan”. Initially, this concerned a small group of employees who all had to sign a separate non-disclosure agreement to be able to work on the product. As the number of people involved with the product grew, the count of uncomfortable meetings or conversations between people who were ‘in the know’ and those who weren’t grew exponentially. Those people not privy to the sensitive information, increasingly started feeling that they were less important to the business or that their contributions weren’t valued properly. I thus experienced first-hand how a lack of transparency can directly influence employee morale.

Creating a psychologically safe environment

The words ‘effective collaboration’ are much easier said than done. Bringing a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds together is a good ingredient for teamwork and innovation; however, just throwing a bunch of cognitively diverse people together is no guarantee of success. In “No Hard Feelings”, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy argue that psychological safety matters when it comes to building diverse teams: ‘there is an unambiguous and meaningful benefit to having people from different backgrounds on your team only when psychological safety exists.’ This claim by Fosslien and West Duffy raises the question about what psychological safety is and how it relates to embracing tension.

I initially thought that psychological safety referred to a personality trait, or a skill that one can master individually. Psychological safety is none of that; it is a feature of the workplace that is created collectively, enabling people to take risks and display vulnerability in front of each other. Amy Edmondson, a renowned management professor at Harvard Business School and specialist in psychological safety, defines it as ‘a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.’ Thinking that psychological safety equals an environment where anyone can get away with anything is easily done, but this assumption is far from correct. Edmondson describes all the things that psychological safety is not:

  • Psychological safety is not about being nice ‒ Working in a psychologically safe environment doesn’t mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. It also doesn’t mean that people offer unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say. Psychological safety is about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. Conflict inevitably arises in any workplace. Psychological safety enables people on different sides of a conflict to speak candidly about what’s bothering them, without the disagreement feeling highly personal.
  • Psychological safety is not a personality factor ‒ Some have interpreted psychological safety as a synonym for extroversion. They might have previously concluded that people don’t speak up at work because they’re shy or lack confidence, or simply keep to themselves. Psychological safety, however, refers to the work climate, and climate affects people with different personality traits in roughly similar ways. In a psychologically safe climate, people will offer ideas and voice their concerns regardless of whether they tend toward introversion or extroversion.
  • Psychological safety is not just another word for trust ‒ Although trust and psychological safety have much in common, they aren’t interchangeable concepts. A key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level.
  • Psychological safety is not about lowering performance standards ‒ Psychological safety is not an ‘anything goes’ environment where people aren’t expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It is not about becoming ‘comfortable’ at work or allowing people to ‘coast’. Psychological safety enables candour and openness and, as such, thrives in an environment of mutual respect.

Instead, a psychologically safe environment or team is characterised by continuous learning. Whilst accountability for achieving certain performance outcomes is very high, it is safe for people to take risks, collaborate and learn. In other words, if a team takes a calculated risk with a particular product or feature and the risk does not pay off, the team and its individual members are not at risk of being punished. This means that whenever a team or an individual encounters tension when developing products, it will be ok to acknowledge it, taking risks and learning as part of working through the tension. Edmondson provides seven survey items to assess whether your organisation or team is psychologically safe, and she uses a seven-point Likert scale (from strongly agree to strongly disagree) to obtain responses. Four of the seven items are expressed positively, such that agreement indicates greater psychological safety, and three are expressed negatively (represented with an ‘R’ for reverse):

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. (R)
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different. (R)
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. (R)
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

For collaboration to be effective, people need to feel safe when it comes to taking risks or making mistakes. This extends to people feeling comfortable in suggesting what others might perceive as outlandish ideas. ‘In every brainstorming session, you will find a move towards average, almost like a Bell curve’ according to Mukesh Gupta, Director of Customer Advocacy at SAP. He therefore encourages his colleagues ‘to go for extremes’, arguing that it is easier for a remarkable idea to become practical yet remain remarkable, whilst it is much harder to make an average or practical idea turn remarkable. Teams that collaborate effectively, Gupta explains, have a shared understanding of the idea that it is ok to poke holes in the idea, but not in people.

Main learning point: To build and maintain trusted relationships, mutual respect and transparency are critical. We can then build on these foundations through exchanging relevant currencies, having shared goals or by being open and encouraging continuous learning.

3 responses to “Establishing trusted relationships”

  1. […] The central point of the Ask Your Developer approach is that developers should be engaged much earlier in the process, when we’re defining the problems that need to be solved. Lawson mentions Apple as a good example of this approach: developers are given problems and can solve however they think is best. Ultimately, the Ask Your Developer approach is about trusted collaboration. […]

  2. […] You’re looking to solve a specific customer problem. You’ve developed a solid understanding of the customer problem space, and you’ve got a team of great people from different functions across the business, ready to create a solution to solve the customer problem. How do we set up the right conditions for this cross-functional team to succeed? How do we create a shared understanding, shared goals? […]

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