Leading with Trust

Want to Build Trust? It Helps to Embarrass Yourself

Oh, those feelings of embarrassment! You feel your body start to sweat, your face turning red, and it feels as if every person in sight is staring at you while you make a buffoon of yourself.

Those embarrassing moments you experience may actually help build trust with others. A recent study by researchers at U.C. Berkeley suggests that the display of embarrassment may increase others’ perceptions of you as a trustworthy individual. Participants in this research watched videos of people describing their embarrassing moments and reported that they perceived those individuals as more generous and trustworthy compared to individuals who tried to downplay the situation and pretend they weren’t embarrassed.

I can’t say the results of this research are terribly surprising, but they do reinforce some fundamental truths about building trust.

  • Being “real” builds trust – We trust people when we perceive them as being authentic and down to earth. When people try to put on airs and pretend to be something or someone they aren’t, we immediately label them as being a fake, a phony, or a poser (pick your adjective). What’s the advice that virtually every parent gives their child who’s nervous about attending the first day of school and making new friends? “Just be yourself.” Displaying emotions of embarrassment tells others that you’re being real, that you acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation, and that you aren’t trying to be someone you’re not by pretending you’re not embarrassed.
  • Vulnerability builds trust – Being embarrassed is a moment of vulnerability when you can no longer hide behind your public persona and you’re subject to the reactions of those around you. People who try to hide their feelings of embarrassment probably have a low-level of trust in how they will be received by others in their social circle. Because of that lack of trust and unwillingness to be vulnerable, they try to hide their embarrassment so they don’t run the risk of being looked at as “less than” the people around them. Willingness to be embarrassed shows others that you are confident in your self-image and standing within the group and a few minutes of embarrassment won’t change the dynamics of your relationship.
  • Shared experiences build trust – Bonding occurs in a group of people when they all go through a common experience and embarrassing moments can serve as one of those community building events. This happened with my team a few years ago when I was given a surprise birthday gift during a team meeting. It was my 40th birthday and the team put together a PowerPoint presentation with embarrassing pictures from my childhood (courtesy of the covert help of my wife), one of which included a side-by-side comparison of my 9th grade high school photo with that of the movie character Napoleon Dynamite (there is a striking resemblance!). It was quite embarrassing and we all had a good laugh, but it brought us closer together and it lives on in the lore of our team.

So the next time one of those embarrassing moments comes along, don’t be a poser and try to pretend it didn’t happen. Embrace the moment, acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation, and use it as an opportunity to build trust and deeper relationships with those around you.

Three Levels of Trust – What Level Are Your Relationships?

When it comes to trust, not all relationships are at the same level. Based on the context of the given relationship – professional, personal, family, social – each one can experience a different level of trust.

There are three basic levels of trust. The first level is deterence-based trust, or what I like to call “rules-based” trust. This is the most fundamental, base level of trust in all relationships. Deterence-based trust means that there are rules in place that prevent one person from taking advantage of, or harming another person. In society we have laws that govern our behavior in personal and business settings. When we engage in business we have contracts that ensure one party can trust another to hold up their end of the bargain. In organizations we have policies and procedures that provide boundaries for how we interact and treat each other, and if we violate those rules, usually there are consequences involved.

The second level of trust is knowledge-based trust. This level of trust means that I’ve had enough experience with you and knowledge of your behavior that I have a pretty good idea of how you will react and behave in relationship with me. We’ve had enough interactions over time where there has been a consistent display of trustworthy behavior that I believe I can trust you with the everyday type issues we experience together. This is the level of trust that most of our day-to-day professional relationships experience.

The third and most intimate level of trust we experience in relationships is called identity-based trust. This level of trust means that you know my hopes, dreams, goals, ambitions, fears, and doubts. I trust you at this level because over the course of time I have increased my level of transparency and vulnerability with you and you haven’t taken advantage of me. You’ve proven yourself to be loyal, understanding, and accepting.

Identity-based trust isn’t appropriate for every relationship. This level of trust is usually reserved for the most important people in our lives such as our spouse, children, family, and close friends. Yet with the proper boundaries in place, this level of trust can unlock higher levels of productivity, creativity, and performance in organizations. Imagine an organizational culture where we operated freely without concerns of being stabbed in the back by power-hungry colleagues looking to move higher on the corporate ladder. Imagine less gossiping, backbiting, or dirty politics being played because we knew each other’s hopes and dreams and worked to encourage their development rather than always having a me-first attitude.

Take a moment to examine the level of trust in your most important relationships. What level are you at with each one and how can you develop deeper levels of trust?

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