Too many times we jump to believing we know instead of making the time to understand. What a hard lesson to not only learn, but live. It is difficult to pause in the moment and ask questions when all we want to do is get to the answer. Time isn’t always on our side but carving out space for true understanding is crucial.  

Before we can get to this high level of understanding each other, we must first build and create trust. This isn’t something you can check off your to-do list, as much as you would like to. It takes time, patience, humility, understanding and courage. 

It doesn’t matter if you have been in your leadership role for two weeks or 20 years, if you aren’t thinking about building trust with your team members every single day, I would challenge you to go back to this foundational work. 

Make no mistake — building and creating trust is work. It’s not just a part of your job; it’s the most important part of your job. I struggle with leaders who believe something different. I struggle with leaders who claim to have a strong healthy culture and yet team members don’t trust each other. Team members openly criticize, even run-down, others when they have the opportunity. That is not a team that trusts each other. If that is happening in your organization, ask yourself what you are doing about it.

As I write this, I realize this work is never done. I am aware of team members on our team who have been critical, sometimes even confrontational, about some of our work and our decisions. That often wakes me up in the middle of the night. We certainly won’t be able to bring everyone along as much as we would like to. Some team members may not have the capacity or willingness. Striking a balance to be able to lead despite that misalignment is a challenge. At the end of the day, you can only control your actions and what you model. 

Chances are if you aren’t thinking about building trust, you may be doing things that are setting you back without even realizing what is happening. I have seen many leaders confuse building trust with wanting to be liked. If I’m honest, it’s been a hard lesson to learn over the years. Even more difficult, “You say you trust me, but you don’t trust me to do my job.” There is a sneaky correlation between building trust and holding team members accountable, and those lines can get blurred quickly. 

It’s like the ice I couldn’t see on the sidewalk this morning while walking my pup, Moon. I suspected it was there, but I couldn’t see it; the sidewalk looked clear. However, it was there and as slick as ever.  Without warning, I fell on my fanny! No matter how sure I thought my steps were, the hidden ice was as slippery as ever, reminding me that my steps, regardless of how cautious I thought I was being, were no match for the slick ice beneath.

This concept is not unlike the relationships we have with the people we work with or even the people around us outside of work. We move along day to day hitting our stride. But, without a strong foundation of trust, our relationships can falter and even fail with the hidden ice below. Hidden ice takes on the form of miscommunication, hurt feelings, laziness, buying into what he said/she said, not asking the question, “What do you really mean?” There are all sorts of little nuances that can crack or even break trust.  Every day this takes energy.  Expressing yourself, showing vulnerability, asking about them, where they are, how they are feeling; these are the conversations that build trust that lead to more productivity, and less toxic drama. 

This year I’d like to share with you steps we’ve taken to build, create and maintain trust. Some have worked, some are a work in progress. Regardless, there are specific experiments, practices, tools, and conversations we’ve used to create an environment of trust. We are certainly proud of the culture we’ve created; but, as quick as I fell this morning, there is always more work to be done. My hope is you will share what is working for you.

For now, I am going to keep trust in mind and find myself a pair of Yaktrax to brave this Iowa ice for the next few months. If building trust were only as easy as slipping on a pair of cleats. 

Julie Thorson was the 2018 recipient of the LeadingAge Dr. Herbert Shore Outstanding Mentor of the Year award. She currently co-facilitates LeadingAge Iowa’s Leadership Academy. She is a Leading Age Academy fellow and former coach. The Head Coach (president and CEO) of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA, Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart. A former part-time nursing home social worker, she is a licensed nursing home administrator and completed Leading Age’s Leadership Educator Program in 2019.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.