The Elements of Trust-Making

We all live our lives on promises. From the time a child can grasp the concept of “cross my heart and hope to die,” there is a realization that anxiety can be reduced only through proof of trust while waiting for a promise to be kept.

The world of work has many forms of promises waiting to be kept. We recollect the power of trust when we see brand names that have attached guarantees — FedEx, Domino’s Pizza, Hampton Inn, Nordstrom and L.L. Bean, to name a few. And we sense its subtle power when the hotel finds our reservation, the newspaper is on the front porch, the bank statement is completely accurate, or mentors do exactly as they promise. Proteges are exactly like the youth in this familiar story.

Mentoring begins with a promise made or implied followed by a gap. The trust gap is the emotional space between hope and evidence, between expectation and fulfillment. Trust is the emotion that propels proteges to the other side of the gap. Insecurity and doubt are not required features of the trust gap. But requiring proteges to walk on the high wire of faith is clearly an inescapable component of every mentoring encounter. The journey across the high wire of faith is a trip with or without anguish, based only on the net of trust the mentor ensures is there to support passage.

There are many dimensions to managing the trust gap. A reputation as a promise keeper can help. Reminders can be communicated along the path that a promise made has not been forgotten. And there can be verbal and nonverbal cues that say to the protege, “I am trustworthy — that is, worthy of your trust.”

Trust is a crucial commodity throughout a mentoring relationship. In fact, research shows that even if the mentor has terrific interpersonal skills, they count for naught without a high level of trust. Conversely, a mentor with only modest mentoring skills can be successful if the protege experiences a high level of trust. But what is the nature of trust? If trust were something you could reverse engineer, what parts would you find inside?

Trust starts with authenticity. We trust another when we perceive his or her motives to be genuine or credible. There are many ways you can demonstrate authenticity, especially at the beginning of the mentoring session.

Start with a pleasant facial expression. Greet your protege like you are sincerely glad to see him or her. Communicate your enthusiasm for the privilege of mentoring and what it can mean for both of you. Look for a way to provide an early, honest compliment.

If you are feeling a bit anxious, say so, but in a fashion that helps build a bond. “I’m a bit overwhelmed by this mentoring assignment, but at the same time I’m excited about what we can accomplish together” is much preferred to “I’m really nervous, are you?”

Trust also depends on credibility. We trust another when we believe the person has the wherewithal to actually perform what is promised or needed. A boxing coach might gain credibility with a demeanor as clipped and gruff as an upper cut, while the credibility context for a surgeon might be more factual than illustrative, grounded more in technique than in rapport.

But in the business world, credibility is best expressed more subtly in the way one might add a pinch of salt to a bland dish.

When you talk with your protege, think of it as trust-building communication that increases in cost with each nonessential word you use. Verbosity is expensive; brevity is cost-effective. Focus on being precise and particular. Trust is just as much about communicating sincere interest in your protege as it is about scrupulous attention to clarity.

When offering advice or feedback, keep your suggestions crisp and obvious. Speak with the confidence of your experience. And when getting feedback from your protege, be quickly appreciative and bold in unearthing additional learning. Finally, show confidence in your ability to transform even negative observations into an opportunity for growth.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell. He can be reached at