Trust: The Currency of Deep Engagement

by Jessica Delaney, Principal, Strategic Communications + Engagement

We do a lot of engagement where the sponsor of the process is being led by a group of partners. Indeed great things are often achieved in a team and so it’s encouraging to see organizations big and small coming together to engage communities and stakeholders. From strategic planning, to master planning, from re-zoning to re-imaging, projects that have widespread impacts and processes that are comprehensive often require a team or partnership approach.

But what happens when partners don’t trust each other? What happens when there’s not a sense of “we are in this together”? It’s been my experience that lack of trust is felt by those outside the partnership and it is a real threat to the project and the engagement process.

Simon Sinek, author and speaker, speaks to the circle of safety. The circle of safety, in a professional context, is when people feel safe and trust leadership, they are more likely to share, be open, and engage. When people don’t feel they are safe they can easily default to becoming selfish, paranoid, and cynical.

What does this have to do with engagement? It’s really hard to engage on anything beyond the colour of paint, if the partners don’t trust each other. Leaders set the tone. Leaders provide everyone with the framework for what is acceptable. So, if you have partners on a project who don’t trust each other, why should the public trust you?

If you are a leader working in a partnership relationship and you are collectively looking to engage the public or stakeholders, here are three internal engagement tips:

  1. Check the trust barometer: conduct an internal engagement session to understand where the levels of trust are amongst partners. If there are trust issues, or if you haven’t been intentional about building trust, focus on building common ground and understanding what the shared success factors look like for all the partners.
  2. Operating Values: why leave your partnership expectations to chance? You can’t expect all the partners to have a default setting that is the same in terms of their operating values or how they are going to work together. Develop partnership operating values and then flush out what they mean for each of you. For example, respect as an operating value is great, but for some it relates to the language and tone we use in our work, and for others in means respecting confidentiality, or facilitating information sharing.
  3. Create an internal feedback loop: As much as closing the loop with the public and stakeholders is important, it’s also important to de-brief internally, to ask what is working well, what could be improved and foster an internal and collective sense of self-reflection and continuous improvement.

As leaders you set the tone of an engagement and if you are working as partners, then it applies to the collective. It’s not just about being on “message” (though that is very helpful), but it’s about fostering a sense of trust internally and recognizing that the collective result is going to be more impactful, longer-lasting and meaningful than the individual rewards that might come from looking out only for you or your organization. Remember: trust is earned and can’t be mandated. Like Sinek says: “it’s environmental”, so start creating the environment for trust-based relationships.