Anne Raimondi was stumped. Two people she managed weren't getting along, and it was really impacting progress. In her private conversations with each of them, they had the same goals and wanted the same things. But in the room together, they'd disagree on everything. They'd quibble over the smallest things, avoid spending time together, and jump to assuming the worst about each other, even though they were ultimately on the same team.
Raimondi — who, today, has an all-star track record, including Director of Product at eBay, VP Marketing at SurveyMonkey, CRO at TaskRabbit, SVP Operations at Zendesk, and COO at Earnin — didn't know what to do, so she asked her executive coach, who stated the problem simply: They don't trust each other.
"Immediately, I thought, 'Oh yeah, of course, that's absolutely it.' It brought everything into focus," she says. To move toward a solution, she recalled a book she'd discovered years prior called The Trust Equation by Steven Drozdeck and Lyn Fisher, which offers the following equation for how humans determine who and how much to trust:
Essentially, the amount you trust someone is the sum of how credible you believe they are on a subject, how reliable they've proven themselves to be over time, and how authentic you think they are as a person, divided by how much you think they're acting in their own self interest. Looking at her colleagues' relationship through this lens, Raimondi helped them diagnose when and how trust had eroded, and eventually work with them to heal the rift.
Since then, she's thought a lot about applying the Trust Equation at technology startups in particular, where trust is non-optional. Not only can distrust between co-founders be fatal, but the terrain at startups changes rapidly, people move into new roles and challenges, and at a certain point there's an influx of new people. There's no time to doubt or be doubted — and this equation can help. Here, Raimondi — who's now a regular instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business — shares how she's seen it applied to fix big problems before they start.
Think about your primary relationships at work, and consider each of the equation's variables. How do the people you know measure up in these categories?
You'll find someone credible if they seem to have the knowledge, experience, and familiarity to perform a particular role well. It's best indicated by past roles, lessons learned, the insights they offer and the terminology they use.
Credibility is something people have in a particular role, in a particular setting, at a particular time.
Where it breaks at startups:
- When people move into new roles within an organization or inherit teams of people to manage.
- Whenever anyone is doing something they've never done before, or figuring out something unprecedented.
- When someone who was just a great engineer, designer, marketer, etc. is suddenly promoted to manage people, which requires talent at leadership and handling people issues. This, especially, can lead to a lot of issues when people don't trust their managers.
"People try to scale as fast as their company, which can damage their credibility if they don't pay attention," says Raimondi. "If you're on this trajectory, you need to proactively re-establish your credibility at every stop along the way. If you find yourself doubting leadership, consider whether there's a credibility gap at play. What could they do to prove their credibility to you?"
What to do about it:
Don't let questions of credibility linger. If you truly are new at doing something, be patient. In the meantime, lean hard on your reliability and authenticity. "Keep your commitments, hit deadlines, and don't hide what you don't know how to do or fake confidence," she says. "Also, make it visible what you're doing to gain credibility, whether that's reading on the subject matter, getting a coach, or applying feedback you've gotten. Show people you're actively closing the delta."
A big part of this is asking the people around you to understand what matters to them, how they want to work with you, what they expect from you, and what they want to make happen. If you've inherited a team, ask questions about what they wish had been different in the past. What gaps existed? What would they like to see change? Asking open ended questions can turn people's doubt about your abilities into excitement about what you'll do that's new.
"Call a meeting with everyone you talked to and say, 'I've gotten input from all of you so it's clear what we want to preserve, and the two or three things you all want to see changed, here's how I'll be making that a priority...'" says Raimondi. "If you've been put in charge of a team because leadership wanted to go in a new direction, be really transparent about that and how the change was made. Don't let people make up their own stories. Get ahead of it with something like: 'I was brought in so we could hit X milestone with a different approach, and I have X expertise they thought would be helpful.'"
Conversely, if lack of credibility is the reason you're doubting someone, gently broach the subject in a one-on-one: "How are you making decisions? What experience are you applying in this situation? How are you learning in this area?" And don’t forget to ask, “How can I help you?” Often, you'll find that people have more credibility than you assume based on their background.
You'll find someone reliable if they do what they say they're going to do. You feel like anything you assign them is as good as done. They hold themselves accountable for things when they go well and when they go wrong. They learn from and clean up their mistakes. They're consistent in behavior, responsiveness, and quality of work.
Someone can be extremely smart, knowledgeable, and a joy to be around, but if they don't deliver on time or to the standard expected, they'll lose trust quickly.
Where it breaks at startups:
- Leaders don't have time to double-check work, so everyone needs to be able to carry the ball and make good decisions on their own. This doesn't always happen.
- Missed deadlines have a resounding impact on whether a startup succeeds or not. At large companies, reliability is often buffered. More people are around to catch you when you fall, deadlines and goal posts can be moved. This is not the case on small teams.
- Many early employees aren't as bought in as the founders, or don't think working at a startup should be any different from another job, so they aren't there when they're needed.
- A lot of early team members are single points of failure for their job functions. If they weren't there, it wouldn't happen, so they can't miss.
What to do about it:
When reliability breaks down, it's important to address it immediately. Don't let more than two projects go by without a conversation. In this talk, you want to 1) establish that your expectations were aligned at the start, 2) explain the impact on the team/goal (not just on you), and 3) ideate with them about how to do things differently the next time. Do this without using accusatory "you" language.
Here's an example: "Hey, I wanted to chat about how we shipped that product a bit later than expected. Was your expectation also that it would go out on March 15? I wanted to chat, because missing that date meant that a few of the engineers had to work over the weekend, and I thought we could ideate a bit about how to course correct and make sure it doesn't happen in the future."
In the course of these conversations, you might discover there was a bigger blocker or systemic issue that led to the deadline being missed — maybe it's not the other person's fault after all, and you just unearthed something more important to fix. Don't let blame blind you to these possibilities. "In the end, most reliability issues between people can be boiled down to poor communication, which is easily fixed," says Raimondi.
"For all these reasons, it's crucial to get the best read possible on the reliability of every single candidate you interview for a job," she says. "Which is tough, because reliability is the most challenging quality to gauge in an interview process — it's usually demonstrated over time."
Here are some of the best (albeit imperfect) ways to check for reliability before making a hire, according to Raimondi:
- Ask behavioral based questions about past experiences to understand how someone acts, not how they think they would act. For example, “Tell me about a time when you missed a deadline. How did you handle the situation?”
- Give a homework assignment with multiple deliverables (e.g. a written analysis of a recommendation and then a short in-person presentation). If someone is serious about the role and showing their best, you’ll see it in what they deliver.
- Check references, especially ones that the candidate did not give you. Too many people skip this step when hiring. Past colleagues and managers can often speak to how consistently reliable someone was, and so much more. Ask the references you speak to to refer you to others who worked closely on projects with the candidate as a peer.
Once someone's in the door, reinforce reliability as a cultural value. Have them ship something on Day 1. Maybe it's code. Maybe it's adding copy to the website or putting out a tweet — depending on job function. Make this the norm every day for their first week. Ask them to turn something in or put something out by a certain time. Observe their bias toward action and how promptly they hit their mark. If you start things with this cadence and expectation, it's more likely to continue. This shortens the cycle it takes for someone to build up reliability.
If you're the new employee just joining, there's more you can do. Figure out where to jump in and make impact in a way that's useful. What are the simple, almost grunt-work level tasks that existing employees want to get done but don't have time to do themselves? Ask, "What's that one thing you want to do but that's last on your list?" Everyone has something like this. Take it off their plate and get it done quickly. This both enhances reliability and minimizes perception of self interest.
"When I joined SurveyMonkey as VP of Marketing, my first day was the same day as our rebrand launch," says Raimondi. "It was a small team and they were all hands on deck. The last thing they wanted to do was train or loop in a new executive. I asked myself, 'What's one simple thing I can do to be helpful, where no one will need to babysit me, and that will help the team succeed?'"
Naturally, the company was running a survey to collect user feedback about the rebrand — and it started pouring in as soon as they flipped the switch. Raimondi immediately volunteered to go through all this data, batch and analyze it. This freed up everyone else to keep bug fixing, and gave Raimondi herself amazing insight into the product — which enhanced her credibility too.
This thing will be different for everyone. The key takeaway: When you're new, always look for opportunities to turn work around fast and well to establish your reliability.
This remains a nebulous term, and is often overthought. What it really means in practice is: How easy is it to get to know the person? Is it clear what they care about, what matters to them and what motivates them? Authentic people don't need to always be polished, or know the answer, or be perfect. They do and say what they mean.
Where it breaks at startups:
- Failure is incredibly common at startups, but people don't want to admit they failed or made a mistake because it will damage their credibility.
- Founders have an idealized view of their companies, and are so practiced at telling its story, that they come across as scripted, contrived, inauthentic. This happens with both fundraising and recruiting and is something to watch out for.
- More people try to project confidence even though they're inexperienced, which can sow distrust.
- Company culture doesn't allow for authentic expressions of anger, displeasure, or sadness — which pushes it underground where it can be more corrosive.
What to do about it:
Really think about how easy it is for your colleagues to get to know you. This doesn't mean giving them access to your entire personal life, or mean you have to tell them everything about you. Rather, do you respond in ways that align with how you truly think and feel? Do your reactions in the workplace match your reactions outside? Do you share enough about what matters to you and what motivates you with your colleagues? If not, why? There might be room to be more authentic on the job, so that people aren't left guessing or assuming how you feel, what you think, what you'll do.
If you feel like someone is being inauthentic with you, you should talk about it. You don't have to accuse them directly, but rather say: "I wouldn't have assumed you'd do or say X or Y. Can you tell me more about why you did?" Be willing to be authentic with them, share what you’re excited about at the company and what you worry about. Ask them to do the same in return. Having the wrong expectations about someone can sometimes masquerade as them seeming inauthentic, so check your own assumptions first. How valid are they, really?
Perhaps the best way to be authentic: Stay in consistent, responsive communication. (This also helps with reliability and credibility.) The prime example here is a founder wanting to maintain the trust of their board and investors. Holding yourself to a schedule for sending weekly company updates and materials (before meetings) and recaps (right after) will enhance your authenticity as a leader. Your stakeholders will know what's top of mind for you and why at every beat along the way, and they'll trust you're on top of things. The same goes for your employees — over-communicate to bring them along with you.
Don't wait to share bad news or ask for help. Don't surprise people with decisions or problems out of the blue.
This will not only make them think less of you in the moment — they also won't trust you as much going forward, because who knows what you might be hiding or what's really going on. “I learned this the hard way,” says Raimondi. “Instead of being open about what I was worried about, I thought I could work through all the issues myself and then share my solution. The end result was that people who were important to me felt out of the loop and blindsided.”
A good approach, cites Raimondi, is one CEO she knows who sends weekly updates to his board like clockwork. Even if they're tiny, they provide much-appreciated connective tissue between them and the company. He also uses it as an opportunity to share a few personal updates from him and his team, and to congratulate board members on important personal developments like anniversaries, birthdays, etc. This helps them acknowledge and feel like they know each other even better as people, not just colleagues. It paints a fuller picture of what matters to all of them inside and outside the office.
Providing time and space for social gatherings at work is crucial. When people feel like they truly know each other, they trust each other more. Hosting team lunches, celebrating baby showers, and letting people share what they value in their personal lives makes a distinct difference. One leader Raimondi admires kicks off team meetings with personal announcements accompanied by photos from employees' recent travel or of a baby's first steps. All of this might sound like a nice-to-have, but it serves an important function.
Authenticity is particularly relevant for startups when it comes to customer service. The way you choose to communicate with customers can either establish long-lasting trust or lose it forever — largely based on whether they feel a real connection to you.
Raimondi provides a vivid example: Last year, she bought a Christmas gift for her son from a small company. Immediately, she received a note from their customer service channel stating: "We're so happy you ordered from us, but unfortunately it looks like this gift will arrive after Christmas! We're incredibly sorry about this — we value giving everyone the week around the holiday off, and we have a tiny staff. We hope you'll understand, and we'll discount your gift in the meantime."
"I was so impressed that they took the time to explain, and I actually walked away feeling warmer thoughts about the company because they provided a little window into how they treat their employees," she says. "It felt personal, it came from an actual human being and not a faceless brand, and I could visualize the people on the other end."
Keep this in mind as you devise customer service templates. Don't just be reactive — anticipate issues. Make messages sound human. Have them come from named people. Be transparent when things go wrong. Give people a chance to get to know you better.
Perception of Self Interest
Does someone seem to be acting only for themselves? Maybe it's to get credit or hit a deadline, to look good or to make more money or close a deal or get more headcount. Note that this variable is more about optics. Even if you're not acting selfishly, it might still appear that you are to others, so you need to be intentional about what you project.
The greater the perception of self interest, the lower the trust between people. Alternatively, the more someone appears to be doing work for the benefit of the team, end user, or a higher goal, the easier it is to trust them.
Where it breaks at startups:
- For founders, their company is their baby. They end up getting a lion's share of credit even though early employees are often working just as hard. It's particularly important for them to defray the perception of self interest.
- Startups are often running so fast, that they forget the importance of passing credit around and acknowledging everyone's wins along the way.
- When sales is added to your org, this will inevitably come up. Anyone who makes money based on commission has assumed self-interest.
- The bigger your team gets, the more often people have their own agendas, the more they're posturing for visibility, promotions and important projects. Executives jockey for position, and politics emerge. Companies should anticipate this to achieve healthy growth.
"Politics can damage companies more than anything else," says Raimondi. "And nothing breeds politics faster than when people appear to be out for themselves — taking credit, fighting for executive attention, pushing for more money and status. When this attitude emerges, people will feel less and less good about helping their colleagues, will doubt people's priorities, and even be skeptical of their offers to help. It's irreversible if not caught early."
What to do about it:
To anticipate and prevent these cracks from forming, anyone who might be perceived this way should first be aware of it and then be proactive about generously giving credit to others (in a genuine way), using collective language like 'we,' 'us,' and 'our' to make it clear they're thinking of the team, and repeating commitments to shared goals and priorities: like doing better by end users, hitting company-wide metrics, etc.
Founders in particular need to keep these tactics top of mind. Given the amount of coverage and glory lavished on entrepreneurs, their employees can feel left behind unless they go above and beyond to highlight others, spread credit around, and give away the spotlight — including inviting others to board meetings to present on their area of expertise, and to speak at conferences and to the press.
Salespeople can do a number of things to change people's perception, including sending out emails when deals are won naming everyone who helped make it possible, emphasizing what the entire team will be able to provide to end users as a result, and actively pitching in to help colleagues hit their quotas.
Plus, you can prevent self interest from taking root early by weeding it out in interviews. When you ask candidates about past accomplishments, always listen for whether they use "I" or "we." Do they take opportunities to talk about how they were a member of a bigger team, or do they take individual credit for the work of many? Ask them who else was involved on big past projects and listen for how they talk about those people — do they say glowing things or do they minimize others' participation? Do they give significant amounts of credit away? That's a good sign.
Other ways startups can catch and diffuse self interest:
- For founders talking to board members, always highlight the impact the work is making on customers/end users. Give away credit to other members of your team.
- As companies get larger, tribalism takes seed, and functional areas can start to distrust each other, i.e. "Marketing won't let us do that" or "We have to do all this work for the folks in Legal." Nip this in the bud by solidifying trust between heads of departments that work together — they'll model behavior others will follow. If a rift emerges, use the equation to help them resolve it.
- Whenever trust starts to fade because of self interest, immediately run the exercise of identifying common goals. What's important to you that's also important to that other person? What are you both working toward? Get things back on track by connecting everyday work and decision making to those things.
WHEN TRUST FAILS
In order to fix trust, you have to recognize the signs and symptoms that it's falling apart — as early as you can. If you feel like something is off between you and a colleague, you and your manager, or you and a report, stop what you're doing. Sit down, put yourself in the shoes of the other person, and take the time to think about each variable described above. Where might a gap be weakening trust?
Tell-tale signs that trust has been damaged:
- Avoiding spending time together and minimizing contact (which has destructive consequences for productivity).
- Silence despite disagreement.
- Disengagement in meetings and general lack of enthusiasm.
- Closed-door conversations that turn into vent sessions about another person.
- People playing politics. (I.e. suddenly, they CC your boss on an email exchange, etc.)
- Slow execution on directions that have been given.
- A formerly close relationship has started drifting off the rails.
- Immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusion on why the other person said or did something.
A lot of times people will complain about a colleague in very specific ways — they do X, Y, or Z wrong. Or they're awful for these reasons. They don't realize that trust is the bigger issue.
Whenever you find yourself in this situation, it's helpful to define the problem as a violation of trust. Reframing it this way incentivizes solutions — because the consequences of distrust for the company are huge. And you can approach repairing it in a more directed way, rather than giving into feelings of general dislike and withdrawal. The Trust Equation can help you decide what to do next.
REPAIR BROKEN TRUST
Raimondi's advice here is clear: Don't wait to talk about it. Initiate a conversation today.
"When you realize something is blocking you from working well with another person, the first step is to recognize how important the relationship is to you," she says. "Inventory all the ways you might be able to work positively together to get more done. Imagine working with the person for the next 5-10 years. What time and energy might be wasted? This will ensure you're going into the talk with the right priorities and perspective. Then identify which variable in the equation you want to focus your talk around to limit its scope."
Asking to talk can be a delicate matter. You don't want to act on every little sneaking suspicion or slight. Make sure that the rift is noticeable enough that you truly feel like your work will be impacted as a result. It's ideal to speak in person. Don't send a long, fraught email. If possible, get out of the office for a change of scenery on neutral ground. Walking is always good to keep things casual (and so you're not staring each other down).
Most importantly, don't circumvent the person by talking to their boss or colleagues. Any great manager will tell you to try resolving the issue directly first. So be gentle, speak only from your perspective, assume good will on their side, and tether your concern to a specific example so it's not just an abstract feeling.
Here's an example: "Hey there, I wanted to chat because I've felt our dynamic shift a bit recently. For example, when X happened, it had Y impact on me. Our relationship is very important to me, so I'd love to understand your experience and understand what to do differently in the future, because I think we can accomplish amazing things together."
Telling the person you value them and their relationship is even more important if you're the angry or injured party, says Raimondi. "I've seen too many managers get more and more frustrated with an employee without ever saying anything. Suddenly, it seems like the only solution is to fire them, when they could have just had a direct and candid conversation," she says. "Often, underperformance stems from employees not feeling valued or liked by their managers."
If you don't talk to the person you distrust, your feelings will only become more entrenched. "This is how you end up with truly silly amounts of adversarial relationships on your team," she says. "All the time I hear people say things like, 'Oh, that person is just power hungry,' or 'there's a land grab in my department right now' or 'I hate those people in compliance — they're making our lives a nightmare.' They villainize their co-workers and expend all this energy instead of focusing on the company's goals."
If you hear someone (or yourself) saying these things, use the Trust Equation as a diagnostic to figure out what's truly going on and cool down the negative emotions. Here are some key tips for doing this:
It's helpful to actually be quantitative. Assign numbers to the variables in the equation. Let's say you're rating the person's credibility, reliability, authenticity and self interest on a scale of 1 to 10. See where you net out (and of course keep it to yourself). This can help crystallize your thinking and remove some of the heated emotion. By assigning points, you also have to recognize what someone is doing well, not just what they're doing poorly, too.
It can also be valuable to run separate equations for each project the person has worked on with you. Maybe they were 100% reliable on one deliverable, but only 60% on a few others. What do those projects have in common? What can you learn about how that person works so you can help them get better?
"For example, let's say someone was only 40% reliable on three projects, and all three of them had a lot of ambiguity around timeline with a lot of moving targets," says Raimondi. "If you're that person's peer or manager, you can help solve for this by making deadlines more concrete in the future. If someone has a low credibility score on several projects, think about why that might be. Maybe they needed more context that you could help provide."
Human beings have a tendency to generalize: "This person is ALWAYS late. They NEVER turn in clean copy." Scoring people project by project breaks this down so you recognize nuance and don't write them off unnecessarily.
When you put these tools together, you can start constructive conversations like this: "Hey there, I just wanted to quickly chat about something that's been on my mind. For the last two projects, I noticed that you've taken the credit during All Hands meetings. You definitely deserve the accolades, but I feel that I meaningfully contributed as well, and because our relationship is so important to me — I think we accomplish so much together — I wanted to mention it and hear a bit more about your experience and whether there was anything I should know. I trust you to tell me if so."
That's one of the most important things you can do, says Raimondi, "Always use the words explicitly: I trust you." Even just saying that will engender more trust between you as you untangle the issue.
USE THE EQUATION TO BUILD YOUR CAREER
For people who are still early in their careers — just coming out of school or climbing the ladder — the equation can be a powerful tool for making good decisions and building healthy networks.
The ability to quickly establish and then nurture trust over years is a vital yet often overlooked ingredient for success.
"Anyone who is 10-20 years into their career knows that the best opportunities come their way from people they trust. At a certain point, their entire careers are shaped by these relationships," says Raimondi. "So if you're not thinking proactively about how to instill and maintain this type of trust, you're missing out."
Here's how she suggests applying the equation to ensure a good trajectory:
1. Consider your credibility, reliability and authenticity every time you start a new role. Your goal should be to establish high scores across all these factors as soon as possible. Think actively about the ways you can demonstrate what you know, that you will do what you say you will do, and that you're the person you say you are.
2. Consult the equation to resolve conflict. Don't readily accept rifts with colleagues, or that you'll never find a way to see eye to eye or that it doesn't matter if someone doesn't think much of your work. You don't need to strive hard for everyone to like you, but you need to foster trust to build good working relationships. Determine whether trust is the culprit in conflicts, and run through the exercise above to heal.
3. Conduct due diligence on future employers. You might be really excited about a possible job, but it's important that you trust the person who would be your manager, and the people who would be your colleagues. Ask questions that will point to whether these people are credible — do they know enough to be excellent at what they are doing — reliable (are they reliably responsive to you? how have they delivered reliably in past projects?) and authentic (do they vulnerably share what will be hard or less glowingly positive about the work?). Does the manager talk about the team's accomplishments or their own accomplishments?
4. When you drop the ball, lean into the weak variable. Everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect. When you do make errors at work, anticipate having to make up some trust. Don't try to force it to happen fast either. Be patient and accept that restoring others' opinions takes time. And that's okay. The equation can act as a guide for how to do this systematically. Think about which variable of the equation you violated when you made the mistake. Over-index on demonstrating that variable going forward to fix things faster.
5. Downplay self interest in negotiations. Yes, self interest is necessary in negotiations for money and promotions, but there are ways to make your argument more compelling. For instance, when asking for more equity, emphasize how you're in it for collective success: "I want to work for the long-term to build something big."
"I've seen people make mistakes in these conversations, saying they need a raise because they have a mortgage or a change in personal expenses," says Raimondi. "It's not that bosses aren't empathetic to that, but the better argument is one that's connected to the good of the team and the business."
To her, the more persuasive raise conversation goes like this: "I want to take on more responsibility — here's what I think the team can do over the next 6 or 12 months, and how I can contribute." Lead with the contributions you want to make to the company as a whole, she says. Then say, "If I'm able to accomplish all of that, I'd love to be bumped up to $X." By not asking for a raise immediately, you're deferring self interest, making it a more comfortable conversation for everyone, and clearly justifying a bump if you make good.
"You want to make your manager look good for advocating for you," says Raimondi. "Think about how you'll be able to boost her toward her goals when you lay out what you're going to do to justify a raise. You have both her and your interest at heart. You're reinforcing that you're on this path together." Then you can deliver on the credibility and reliability that will get you there on your timeline.
In every career, regardless of how talented or dedicated or socially intelligent you are, there will be moments of uncertainty and relationship turmoil. Instead of jumping to conclusions about what happened or feeling defensive right off the bat, consult the Trust Equation. There's high likelihood that what you're feeling is related to weakened or doubted trust in some respect. This framework can give you a place to start talking about or repairing the situation.
Trust is at the root of all relationships. More than anything else, it defines whether you'll like someone or be able to do productive work with them. Yet it's seldom discussed in any articles or advice about how to network and get ahead in one's career. The wisdom shared above is a primer for how to make it a focal point and positive trigger for action throughout your professional life — so that you remain on the trajectory you want.
"The thing about trust is that it's so fundamental that it's often overlooked as the issue at hand," says Raimondi. "If you're able to see how important it is in every interaction, that's a big advantage."