3 min read

Earning trust through curiosity

Earning trust through curiosity
Photo by Jannis Lucas / Unsplash

The other day, Seth Godin wrote this in his blog post titled Coercion:

One way to look at power is “you get to tell people what to do.”

But an alternative is that the most powerful institutions, brands and people are the ones who are in alignment with their audience.

Trust and the benefit of the doubt are more powerful and resilient than command and control.

It’s more difficult to earn this leadership role, and more valuable once you have it.

This post reminded me of advice a mentor gave me when I started my current job on how to build trust with my new team. For the first year, he told me to consistently say to everyone, "I'm new around here," and to develop the mindset of a cultural anthropologist:

Imagine you are an anthropologist and you are dropped into the Amazon rainforest. You don’t know the customs, you don't know what foods they eat, and you don't know why they eat stuff. It is your job to be that anthropologist and figure out how it is that this tribe does what they do.

Implicit in this exercise is that is there is no judgment here. If at this point you are passing judgment, it is too early.

Here's the advice they gave me as for how to do this:

Ask how and what, not why

Leading with curiosity means asking "how" and "what" questions, instead of "why." For example, let's say your team is not writing tests or using linters. Ask people:

  • Can you help me understand what we did to lead to this situation?
  • How do we maintain quality on this project?
  • How do we set the bar?

Even if the answers don't make sense to you, the team has gotten to this point without you, there is some rationality as to how they have made decisions. They have gotten here because there were some very well-meaning people who made decisions that have made sense at the time. Take the time to understand that rationality. You will need to manage those expectations, whether or not they align with your own ideas of what engineering excellence looks like.

Do what you say you will do

This sounds like a simple one, but given how many things will come your way, it can be really easy to let things drop.

As a leader, you need to pay attention to this. If you say "I am going to deliver something on Tuesday, it has to be there on Tuesday. Otherwise, you need to renegotiate before Tuesday. If you promised Tuesday, get it done by Tuesday."

Validate your hypotheses

Ask for help, be vulnerable, and get other people to have skin in your game and your success. You do this by constantly asking for input and pressure testing things in real-time:

Here's what I'm seeing.
Here's how I'm understanding this.
Did I get this right?

Am I understanding this correctly?

My next step of decisions will be X – what do you think?

Showing up and asking for other people for advice based on their experience and expertise is your way to build trust. If they give you advice and you follow it, and they become vested in success. You nudge the organization forward through these kinds of interactions.

Ultimately, the goal is to persist with curiosity, not judgment, and really learn what other people know and think about things. Keep the mindset of:

I'm new around here, how do we do this around here?

I'm really just curious, because I don't see a lot of X. How do we get to this point? Were there a series of decisions that were made?

What should I worry about in terms of our strategy for X?

Even with power, we don't do great things with fiat.

We do it incrementally from the bottom up, starting with the foundation and fostering connections, while subtly nudging the organization in the direction we want it to go. This approach is more difficult that just announcing the change we want, but it is likely to be much more successful and valuable too.