The Elements of Trust

Written by Charles Nelson - December 11, 2019

TRUST is the most precious, powerful, important and elusive facet of design practice.

Ten years to create, 5 minutes to destroy. Every architect I’ve ever met, I’m 100% certain, would consider himself/herself trustworthy. But do their clients trust them? Trust them to spend their massive investments in their futures wisely, prudently?

I’ve heard it said, from clients, more than once, “Architects want to spend your money building award-winning monuments to themselves”. That’s a serious charge.

For all their belief in the importance of trust, VERY few architects are game enough to mention it in their website (which are their 21st C. billboards). Here is one little crumb of interesting research. I Googled “trusted architects”, and out of more than 3 million results, in 2nd place, page 1, was a small Melbourne firm: Check them out, and you’ll see immediately why they got such a phenomenal ranking. They simply said they could be trusted. Amazing.

More searching showed that a few – very few – other intrepid firms that ventured to go where angels fear to tread. Will you put your money where your mouth is? Most design firms DO NOT want to go there. Feels like bragging, maybe. But how does this lack of commitment feel to the client? How many design firms are willing to actually say “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back”? Not many! (For the record: PSMJ Resources does.)

One aphorism comes up repeatedly in the literature on trust: “Under promise, over-deliver”. That good idea is widely understood and accepted (but not so often followed).

I found one generic research paper on the topic, titled The Decision to Trust. Robert Hurley, writing in The Harvard Business Review in September 2006, discusses research he did with 450 executives in 30 companies, which showed that about half of all managers did not trust their leaders. Hurley links poor staff performance with a lack of trust of leaders. He says “Clearly, companies that foster a trusting culture will have a competitive advantage in the war for talent: Who would choose to stay in a stressful, divisive atmosphere if offered a productive, supportive one?”

In Hurley’s view, there are 3 consequences to a lack of trust between staff and principals: Staff won’t be very productive (lowering the firm’s ability to compete), won’t build trust between the firm and its clients, and good ones won’t stay with the firm.

Upon reading Jason Jennings’ The Reinventors: How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change, I came across something especially compelling. It was in a chapter on leadership (p 118 if you want to find it).

What Jennings discovered, and discusses, is how recent research has determined that there are four “guiding principles for building the early foundations of trust quickly”:

• We trust those who speak our language
• We trust those who ask good questions
• We trust those who share our values
• We trust those who listen

It turns out that attracting both top clients, and top staff to serve those clients, depends almost completely on the level of trust established, with both groups.

One caveat with the above quartet: the “language” in point 1 doesn’t mean English as opposed to Swahili or Urdu. It means language in the sense of understanding each other – knowing the idioms and the acronyms; the terminology of the industry.

Read those four dictums again, thinking in terms of how you approach both your clients and your team. Is it about you, or about them? If you think it is about them, how do you know?

Let me rephrase the questions:

Do you ask more questions than give instructions?

1. Are your questions 100% free of any sense of blame for things that didn’t go well?
2. Do you believe that your clients understand your values, business and personal?
3. Do you believe that your staff understand your values, business and personal?
4. Do you listen to your clients more than you talk to them?
5. Do you listen to your staff more than you talk to them?
6. In the above 6 questions, did you answer YES 6/6?
7. If not, why not?

Maybe it goes without saying, but just in case:

• Clients give work to people they trust.
• Staff do amazing work for people they trust.

Read Jennings’ book. You won’t be able to put it down.

Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA, AECPM

March 13, 2019