Engendering trust and respect
Those of us in the A/E/P industry have a choice to make. Should we be adversaries or colleagues? Colleagues is the right answer.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the place of “trust” and “respect” in the work we do. What is it, how do we get it, give it and sustain it? Why do some people and teams we work with thrive on it, taking all the stress out of the work we do, and others seem to foster conflict, antagonism and tension?
I’ve been aware of the degradation of trust and respect in our society for some time. I often refer to it as a loss of civility. But that’s only the symptom. I’m currently in a work setting where the respect level among the entire team is quite high, causing me to examine closely why this is the case. In this circumstance the team includes an architect, engineers, contractor, client/developer, city staff, and elected officials. In other words, it comprises nearly everyone needed to bring a program from an idea to a design, to permits, to construction, and to reality.
This program is in Reno, Nevada. What difference does that make? Different locales and companies have personalities, just like sports teams, police departments, and all manner of entities. By and large, Reno is a more respectful town than many of the places where I’ve lived and worked. I’m much more likely to observe civility here – not always, just more often.
I expect you’ve noticed this in your own work. One community treats you as an adversary, while another accepts you as a partner trying to make the city a better place. A contractor bombards you and the client with requests for information, delay claims, and change orders, while another sits down with you and works through their question or concern as a partner. Each setting contains something I’ll call a “Respect Coefficient.” I define that as an attitude among all involved of mutual trust and respect toward each other, as people and as firms. It also means a respect for and commitment to the mission, a shared notion of what we’re doing together, the process we’re using, and what the positive effects and benefits will be for our community.
A caveat: The group I’m currently working with subscribes to a “no a - - holes” rule. This applies to individuals as well as companies. The firm’s principals have been quite selective about the people they’ve hired and the consultants and contractors with whom they partner. In other words, people and firms with a high Respect Coefficient. There are exceptions. We’re committed to a specific locale and can’t choose to pick up our tent and go somewhere else. Many cities start out with a predisposed adversarial attitude toward developers and architects, based on previous experiences when trust was betrayed because truth was not a priority. City officials may have become embittered, or caught up in their own power/ego trips.
Trust and respect are reciprocal. We can choose to trust and respect, but if the response is still adversarial, we will not have a fruitful relationship. We have to learn how to build respectful and trusting relationships. Building such relationships starts with three commitments:
Always tell the truth. The slightest deviation from truthfulness destroys trust instantaneously.
Learn deeply about every person with whom we’ll interact. Asking another person about themselves, who they are and what they value is the highest form of respect. Talking primarily about yourself degrades the relationship quite quickly.
Work toward defining a shared mission. An clear understanding of purpose and intent on the part of each participant will lead to a successful outcome that everyone will be proud of. An agreed-upon mission that we strive to achieve together means we do well together, our enterprise does well, and each of us does well as individuals. In achieving that common goal we’ll all share great pride in what it’s done for our community.
It takes hard work and patience to adhere to and deliver on these three commitments. There are frequently obstacles and attitudes based on past experience to overcome. Conflicting ideas and circumstances spring up all the time. How we deal with them either builds or destroys trust and respect. I have learned to ask one simple question, and teach others to do the same when a disagreement arises. I don’t blurt out what’s wrong with the other person’s idea, or tell the person how we’re going to do it because they’re so obviously wrong. I simply say, “Tell me more about that.” I sincerely want to explore the issue thoroughly together, demonstrating a respect for everyone’s point-of-view. I may learn something that changes my mind or vice versa. At the very least, we build trust when we are each committed to working together to find the best solution to the issue at hand. We make a commitment to not stop the conversation until all parties concur with a decision and direction.
I’ve found this very effective in interacting with public officials and staff as well. If we invest the time to seek out and agree to common goals for what we’re trying to accomplish, we build trust. If we demonstrate respect for each person’s ideas, we build trust further. What a wonderful experience it is when the entire city council or planning commission turns to an outlier, who has stubbornly refused to help find a solution, and tells the person to please take it up with one of them after the hearing.
These are not simple habits to form, but are very effective when you do. Please try them and let me know how they work for you.
Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from issue 1146 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.
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