What trust is made of

This post was originally published on the Front Row Agile blog, which has since disappeared.

Dysfunctional teams

Some years ago, when the team I was on was starting to Scrum, I dove into agile. A whole world opened up for me. It was like somebody had written down what I’d been carrying around as wishful thinking for quite some time. About a year later I was getting rather frustrated. We were doing Scrum and were pretty good at delivering working software every iteration, but other than that we weren’t really being agile.

I spoke with several people about my experience. J.B. Rainsberger was one of them, and after hearing my description of day-to-day life at the office, he recommended Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” to me.

Hit the nail right on the head, he did.

Improving trust the Lencioni way

“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” explains what lack of trust in a team can lead to, and how the consequences can seriously affect the bottom line. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading this book. The parable is a nice read even if you are not interested in dysfunction or trust. If you are, it will give you a lot of food for thought.

At the back of the book, Lencioni provides tools to assess your team’s health and discusses how to remedy each of the five dysfunctions. When I first read this book, I was quite taken with all his advice. After digging into the concepts of trust and vulnerability a lot further, it impresses me less. To start rebuilding trust, Lencioni mentions a number of techniques:

  • Personal history exercise
  • Team effectiveness exercise
  • Personality and behavioral preference profiles
  • 360 degree feedback
  • Experiential team exercises

One problem I have with them is that using these techniques means calling meetings. When you are the leader of a team, you may be able to get away with calling a meeting and doing the exercises “because you think it’s a good idea.” But, when you are “just a grunt” like I was at the time, you have to convince the members of your team to take part. That involves broaching a subject that is thorny at the best of times and positively hazardous at the worst.

A second problem is that each of these exercises themselves requires a willingness to open up. That’s not going to be easy in a situation where there is little trust to go around to begin with.

Lastly and most importantly, these exercises focus on connection and mutual understanding. While these are important in allowing trust to grow, they don’t constitute trust itself. It really doesn’t matter how much I know about your private life, your personality, your behavioral preferences or how many shared experiences we have; if your behavior remains such that I cannot count on you, the likelihood that I will trust you will remain slim indeed.

What is trust?

If connection and mutual understanding are not trust and don’t necessarily lead us to trust each other, then what is trust? What behaviors would signal that you could trust me if you’d be willing to do so? What behaviors would inspire you to trust me?

I found the answer to these questions quite serendipitously.

On one of my browsing adventures, I happened upon Brené Brown’s “Listening to Shame” TED Talk in which she shares her experience with her TEDx Houston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” This led me to take part in the first ever “Living Brave Semester.” In the lead-up to that, we all received a free pass to Brown’s class, “The Anatomy of Trust.”  

The main video of that class (which is freely available) provided me with what I felt was lacking in all other discussions about trust. Where other discussions of “building” trust always feel like they are overcomplicating things or confounding trust with connection, the Anatomy of Trust is powerful in its very simplicity (see my blog post, “Myths and Misconceptions About Trust” for more on this matter).

“The Anatomy of Trust” is outlined with the acronym “BRAVING:”

  • Boundaries
    You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.
  • Reliability
    You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.
  • Accountability
    You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
  • Vault
    You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept, and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential.
  • Integrity
    You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
  • Non-judgment
    I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.
  • Generosity
    You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.

Surprising realizations

These definitions were a revelation to me. The acronym would not have had half the impact on me if not for the definitions that Brené Brown attached to each word.

I never understood the idea that setting boundaries is simply telling people what is okay and what is not, defining what you like and what you don’t like and saying “No” to inappropriate requests.

It was a shock to realize that my inability to say “No” to requests in general meant I was a lot less reliable than I had previously thought. Since that sunk in deeply, saying “No” has become much easier for me. It no longer means not being nice or cooperative. Instead, it is now tied to improving my reliability and thus my trustworthiness.

Seeing accountability defined like this cleared up a lot of misunderstandings I had about it. Until seeing these definitions I confounded accountability and reliability. As a result, I often shirked “being held accountable” as I thought it meant having to live up to (someone else’s) estimates or targets. Now, I am fine with being held accountable since it is clear to me that it is about owning your decisions and the consequences that come with them.

The vault made me realize that trustworthiness also means not allowing other people to share information with me that’s not theirs to share. In other words: it’s not just about not gossiping yourself, but also about stopping other people from gossiping to you. After all, what they can do with you they can also do to and about you.

I don’t know how or why it got to be like this, but saying somebody was a person of integrity to me simply meant that he or she was honest and sincere. Brené Brown’s definition of integrity made me realize where many trust failures come from. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone in software development who will not stress the importance of quality, maintainability and robustness. Yet, when push comes to shove, managers will ask for speed and developers, including me, don’t stand their ground nearly as often as they should.

Non-judgment surprised me. Without the definition provided, I would have interpreted it to be about not judging other people. However, it is just as much about not judging yourself.

Judgment and a lack of generosity often go hand-in-hand. They are the fastest ways to erode trust. Where failures in all the other anatomic parts of trust may not affect our emotions directly, judgment and less-than-generous interpretations of our intentions hit close to home, perhaps even more so when they touch upon our insecurities. For example, our insecurity about our professional skills, our mistakes and our social skills.

Practical application

Where Lencioni’s advice to rebuild trust involves meetings and group exercises, “The Anatomy of Trust” can be applied individually. You don’t need anybody else to start adopting behaviors that are (more) in line with BRAVING.

Setting boundaries is the most important practice. Upholding your integrity and being generous in your interpretation of what your teammates say and do is not possible without setting boundaries. You can’t practice your values if you are not setting boundaries around behavior that is not in line with your values, while being generous without setting boundaries is being a doormat – letting people walk all over you.

Practicing reliability may get you some flak. People may at first be taken aback by your candid “No, I can’t do that” or “What would you like me to drop instead?” However, they will soon pick up on the fact that when you say “Yes” you mean “Yes,” and they can count on you to deliver.

Practicing accountability is interesting. Acknowledging your mistakes instead of making excuses or pointing your finger at someone else may feel extremely dangerous, especially when you are in a team with a culture of blame. It takes guts and trust–self-trust. My advice is to take baby steps. Start with acknowledging your mistakes to yourself, then acknowledge a small mistake to your peers: “Oh, darn, I forgot to add that new file to source control. Sorry about that.”

Practicing the vault is pretty straightforward, I’d hope.

Practicing integrity is probably the hardest task. For integrity, you need clarity on your values, especially your core values. That will require some, if not a lot, of self-work. Starting is simple though. Pick one thing you really, really, really find important. Kindness, for example. Then, start showing it more often and start stopping yourself from being unkind. You know what they say: it’s like a muscle, you need to train it.

Practicing non-judgment and generosity aren’t a piece of cake either. Forming judgments and interpreting intentions is built into our system, or at least has been driven into it by our upbringing and education. It’s hard to stop, even when we know it’s not likely to improve our relationships. However, it’s still important to try.

The effect that judgment and lack of generosity have on trust is huge, and is what makes giving feedback so hard. Effective feedback requires you to get past your emotions, focus on observable facts and request what you want and would like to see. I’ve found Jurgen Appelo’s feedback wraps helpful in this.

The simplest way to start practicing non-judgment is to start with yourself. Be non-judgmental about not knowing something. Start asking for help. In the process, you may be met with judgmental responses. Don’t bite and don’t retort. Just say something like “Yes, will you help me learn?” There are no guarantees, as some teams are toxic beyond repair, but I’m willing to bet the judgmental responses will decrease and it may not be long before your teammates will feel safe enough to start asking for help themselves.


The fun part of BRAVING is that as you start practicing it, chances are that your example will spread. Maybe not like wildfire, but the people around you can’t help but notice.

Vulnerability begets vulnerability and trust begets trust.

As you start displaying more vulnerability (like owning your mistakes) and setting boundaries around inappropriate responses (telling people that sarcasm is unwarranted and not very helpful), your teammates will feel safer to follow your lead.

The best thing about it is that you don’t even have to care whether your example is copied.

Practicing BRAVING has done wonders for my self-trust. I now know that I can count on myself to take care of myself, to set boundaries around toxic behavior and to be generous to myself when I stumble. To pick myself up, dust myself off, be self-compassionate and try again when showing my vulnerability is met with harshness.

What BRAVING has done for me, and what I hope it will do for you, is provide an easy-to-remember acronym that shows you what inspires trust. Behave in alignment with the definitions of “The Anatomy of Trust” and your trustworthiness will increase. Behave out of alignment with them and your trustworthiness will decrease. It’s as simple as that.

Be brave and BRAVING!

PS: If you’d like to discuss BRAVING, for example in a retrospective, just Google “BRAVING download.” That should bring up several results for the original BRAVING poster by COURAGEWorks (Brené Brown’s company).