During a luncheon at Wings Special Needs Community, the presenter made a statement that stuck in my mind. Wings is a day program in OKC for adults with developmental disabilities. They provide carefully curated programs designed to enhance independence, grow life skills, and allow members to live vibrantly.
The speaker said that when working with the members of Wings, trust was the key. She went on to expand that thought. Due to a combination of developmental differences and trauma from unintentionally insensitive or intentionally unkind people, Wings members are often initially uncomfortable with a touch or even a laugh. Their experiences, combined with limited emotional and mental development, makes them uncertain about the intention of a person. Only time and slowly earned trust can change this.
It struck me that all of us are just like the Wings members. We all have experiences where someone hurt us, shamed us, or ridiculed us. They may have been intentionally cruel or just sadly insensitive, but it hurt just the same. We all have uncertainty when interacting with other people if we haven’t had time to discover whether or not they can be trusted. We all get hurt by people no matter how careful we are.
Adult development includes learning how to mask or moderate our feelings and natural reactions. That is something Wings members often don’t have. They wear their feelings on their sleeves and are uncomfortably (for us) transparent about what they think. If they trust and love you, it is unconditional. If they don’t trust you, they don’t hide it. Maybe we should take a cue from them.
I’m not suggesting that we release our raw emotions and responses on an unsuspecting world. I am suggesting that we get better at the delicate dance of getting to know one another and building trust. That dance is a partnership that requires effort from both sides. So, what is the motivation for us to participate? Relationship. It’s that simple. We need connection with other people, and that interaction needs to be deeper than just talking about the weather.
As a leader, it is easy (though not terribly effective) to wield positional power. It is much harder (but has much greater impact) to develop relational influence. The first step to entering into a relationship with another person is trust. Saying we trust someone is another way to say we have found that person to be safe for us.
When I got out of rehab, I had to learn how to determine if someone was safe. Being authentic and vulnerable is a healthy way to live, but not everyone deserves access to us. Over time, I learned what the Wings members instinctively know. People who are safe are honest, caring, and consistent.
When someone is unable to be honest about themselves, it is unlikely that they can be honest with or about me. The dishonesty I’m talking about is not outright lying for gain or malice, rather, it is the inability to see themselves as they are. If they don’t trust themselves or anyone else, how can I trust them? Honesty often looks like humility, vulnerability, and transparency. To determine if someone is honest, I will share a small part of myself and see if they reciprocate.
Have you ever been the subject of a joke or mild ridicule? How you take it probably has a lot to do with the relationship you have with the person doing the joking. When we care about other people, we are careful not to assume on our level of intimacy with them. It tells me a lot about someone if they make jokes at other people’s expense when they don’t know them well, and what it tells me is they are not safe.
Another way to determine if someone is a caring person that can be trusted is to pay attention to how they talk about people who are not in the room. If they protect people who are absent, speak well about them, and refrain from gossip or speculation, then you can reasonably assume they would do the same for you. Conversely, if they talk about other people to you, wouldn’t they talk about you to others?
Finally, trust is rooted in consistency. The definition of trust is, “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” First in that list is reliability. At Wings, the volunteers who show up day after day after day eventually earn the trust of the members. We cannot trust someone based on a single interaction. It takes consistency over time to prove that intentions and motivations are real and healthy.
Trust comes with risk. People are not perfect, and they can and will let us down. What is important is what we are most characterized by. It is snowing here in OKC, and it is beautiful, but OKC is not characterized by being snowy. One day of snow does not make OKC a winter wonderland, and neither does one mistake change whether someone is trustworthy.
The community and culture we enjoy are based on trust. We must be willing to both trust others and be people worthy of trust. For leadership, this is made more difficult by the positional power we have. People are naturally and reasonably distrustful of those who have positional power over them. Therefore, we must do two things.
Leaders must be willing to trust the people they serve easily and often. In the dance, someone has to lead, and that is the responsibility of the leader (which seems grammatically obvious). When we trust, it encourages trust. This doesn’t mean overlooking things that need to be corrected; it means assuming the best about people and making them prove you wrong.
Leaders must excel at being trustworthy. Be honest about yourself. Acknowledge your failures and apologize quickly and often. Don’t put on a front or pretend to be something you’re not. Just be the best version of yourself. Care sincerely. You can’t fake this. Finally, be consistent. We all have good days and bad days, but as a leader, I don’t get to excuse myself because I’m in a bad mood. By the way, it is much easier to be consistent when what and who you are is authentic.
When we are willing to do the work necessary to be trustworthy and to trust others, we create connections with people that allow us to achieve things we could never achieve alone. Trust makes relationships possible, trust gives us wings, and trust is The Kimray Way.