Trust : Oprah, SuperSoul Sessions, + B.R.A.V.I.N.G.


Trust! I’m blogging about TRUST this week, along with my “Blogging Buddy” colleagues Lynn Glickman and Jeff Brusso. We are trying a blogging challenge and are all addressing the same topic, so make sure to check out their posts Of Trust (Jeff) and “Trust Me” (Lynn). As I’m typing this now I have not yet seen what they’ve written, so I have no idea the direction they will take. I was also not sure the direction I wanted to take. To write about trust from an organizational culture perspective? From a leadership/management angle? Or something more personal, like trust in relationships? I spent a good hour researching “trust”, even committing a librarian’s cardinal sin by typing “trust” into Google, not a supporting keyword to be found, in the hopes of finding inspiration among the millions of search results. I read a couple of fascinating Harvard Business Review articles about the neuroscience of trust and how the decision to trust gets made, found several dozen inspirational quotes about trust, a hilarious comic about trust by my favorite cartoon The Oatmeal (mild language warning), and got sucked into the YouTube rabbit hole by watching trust-related movie clips (enjoy this “Meet the Parents” “Circle of Trust” montage).

What ended up grabbing me came from an unexpected place: Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions. While I do love Oprah and admit to having her 20th Anniversary DVD Box Set, I have never watched the OWN Network nor have I watched any of her SuperSoul Sessions. Okay, I also admit to being a willing recipient of my mom’s recycled O Magazines, but still I never thought I’d watch SuperSoul Sessions, which sound a little too “woo-woo” even for me. Enter Brené Brown. I’m aware of Brené Brown because of a powerful video on empathy shown by one of my colleagues at a meeting a few months ago. The way Brown describes the difference between sympathy and empathy struck a chord with me, so I was intrigued when I saw “The Anatomy of Trust” SuperSoul Sessions video come up in my search results.

Brown begins with a beautiful definition of trust from Charles Feltman: Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” He goes on to say that Distrust is when what I have shared with you that is important to me is not safe with you.” Using this definition, Brown went through the research on trust, synthesizing what she learned about the anatomy of trust, and created the acronym “B.R.A.V.I.N.G.”— because “when we trust, we are braving connection with someone.” In this post, I will unpack the B.R.A.V.I.N.G. acronym and talk about what makes or breaks trust in the workplace.

B is for Boundaries: All relationships have boundaries. If you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and if you are clear about the other person’s boundaries and you respect them, then that relationship can be a trusting one. At work, what are your boundaries? What boundaries do you notice others holding? Most of us can probably call to mind a colleague, past or present, who either did not respect our boundaries or who seemed not to have their own personal boundaries and made people uncomfortable with their oversharing. One of my work boundaries is Facebook. I don’t generally become Facebook friends with current work colleagues, not because I don’t think we could be true, out of work friends, but because I want to maintain a healthy separation between my work and personal lives. One of the best administrators I’ve ever known (B.F., described in my post The Mentor) was a fun-loving man who enjoyed socializing with his staff. Since we were at an international school, socializing between administrators and staff was normal, but he always knew the right time to leave. He had boundaries that never put him in a situation where he was with staff as the night wore on and we headed out to late-night festivities that might compromise the boundaries between himself as the top administrator and us as his staff. Having boundaries at work, and identifying and respecting those held by others, is a vital part of establishing trust in the workplace– particularly if you hold a leadership role.

R is for Reliability: Reliability means that you do what you say you are going to do– not once, but over and over again. This is where good intentions and the desire to be a great colleague can actually get in the way of trust. If you’ve ever found yourself overpromising but underdelivering, this is an error of reliability. It’s much better to be realistic about what you can do, but always delivering– every time. As a leader, this can be difficult. We want to be there for our staff and attend to every one of their needs. We want to solve their problems, provide them with additional resources, do whatever we can to gain their trust and respect. But overpromising on these types of things can backfire and can leave our staff distrusting us because they learn that we are not actually reliable. This is something that I have been working on for the past few years. I very much want to be there for the staff that I support, but I have had to realize that I have much more integrity and can build up trust more effectively if I am honest about what I can and can’t do, never promise something that I can’t deliver, and be as clear as I can about timelines. As a colleague, and as someone with a boss, I also work hard at reliability. If I say that I will do something by a certain time, I will do it. Reliability is so important, especially as a new employee, to establishing trust that it’s one of the first things you can focus on as you are making your initial impressions at an organization.

A is for Accountability: Accountability is when you make a mistake and you own it, apologize for it, and make amends– and then when I make a mistake, I am allowed to do the same. For me, this is one of the most important qualities in a colleague, boss, and leader and is something that I try and cultivate within myself. Whenever I see someone admit to a mistake, apologize for it and make appropriate amends, my respect for them increases tenfold. Because I feel so strongly about this, it is usually fairly easy for me to admit a mistake, apologize for it, and then work hard to make it right. We have to recognize that everyone is human, and that mistakes are a natural part of the human experience. We are no more or no less for our mistakes, but our character and trustworthiness can be evidenced by our honesty about them. Equally critical is our willingness to extend the same understanding to our colleagues who would like our understanding and forgiveness if they are seeking accountability for their own mistakes.

V is for Vault: Vault is when what I share with you, you hold in confidence; and what you share with me, I hold in confidence. But that’s not all– it’s also that we don’t share things that aren’t ours to tell. This is a hard one, because sharing gossip can seem like a quick and easy way to forge connections with others. Everyone knows who in the workplace is good for dishing the dirt– but would you actually choose to be vulnerable with that person? Probably not. We need to think twice before we share something that really isn’t ours to tell. It might seem like we are solidifying our relationship with someone when we engage in gossip, but in reality we are eroding their trust in us because we’re demonstrating that we don’t respect other’ rights to their own stories. Brown’s commentary on this is worth a listen. She describes the closeness forged through gossip and talking badly about others as “Common Enemy Intimacy” and argues that it’s “counterfeit closeness.” In the workplace, this is such a common phenomena that it’s one we need to guard ourselves against. One way to do this is to be the person who does not engage in gossip. Change the subject, leave the room, do what you can to show respect for the unfortunate topic of conversation. Establish yourself as trustworthy by adopting the Michelle Obama mantra: “When they go low, we go high.” The challenge here, of course, is not seeming sanctimonious. It’s a hard balance, but if we just make a rule to consistently avoid gossiping, people will generally get the hint and avoid it while we’re around.

I is for Integrity: Brown’s definition of integrity is “choosing courage over comfort; choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.” As a leader, one of the hardest yet most important things to do is have difficult conversations with people. Over the years, I have had to have a handful of these conversations, and it’s never fun. In each of these instances, I could have avoided these conversations and instead maintained a concept of myself as “nice”, “friendly”, and “non-confrontational.” This was an attractive option for me, because part of my identity is being someone who is generally liked by others.  I knew that having these conversations could provoke a negative reaction in the other person and that it was likely that they would, at least temporarily, harbor negative feelings towards me. In each scenario, I reflected on both my personal values as well as on my responsibilities to my organization. In all cases, it was more important to me to be true to what I knew was right, so I had the conversations and was able to walk away knowing that I maintained my integrity and did not choose to do what was fun, fast or easy. I would say that one person did choose to harbor a lasting grudge, but the aftermath of the other conversations was professional and positive.

N is for Non-Judgment: Non-Judgment is when “I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle, and not be judged by you; and you can fall apart, be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me.” The tricky part of this according to Brown is that, in order for trust to be present, this non-judgment must go both ways. It’s not enough to always be the helper for someone else. Many of us, especially in a helping profession like education, pride ourselves on helping others, but find it difficult to be vulnerable ourselves. For those in leadership roles, how does this work? Can we afford to be vulnerable in front of those we support? According to Brown, this is essential for an optimally trusting relationship. Obviously we have to be vulnerable within the boundaries we’ve established for these relationships, but if we think about a time we’ve seen a boss or another leader higher than us on the organizational chart ask for help or admit some sort of vulnerability, doesn’t it draw us closer to them on a human level? Doesn’t it help us trust them more?

G is for Generosity: This is probably my favorite letter of the B.R.A.V.I.N.G. acronym. This is presuming positive intent. Brown says that generosity is when “You can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions and behaviors, and then check in with me.” I believe that if we could be generous first in how we think about others when they disappoint us, instead of feeling hurt, offended, or self-righteous, so many relationship problems could be stopped before they began. If someone sends an email that you perceive has a “tone”, if someone forgets to say or do something that would have meant a lot to you, or if you are left out of a meeting or gathering in which you would have expected to be included, first show them generosity by presuming positive intent. When I find myself going down the rabbit hole of being upset by what someone did or didn’t do, I try and stop myself by saying, “Don’t tell a story!” If we can stop making up stories about the meaning of someone’s actions or words, and instead go to them directly, we can help keep a calm mind and also can help preserve the trusting nature of that relationship. I’ve had the opportunity to help establish norms in a few different teams over the past few years, and “Presume Positive Intent” is always one of my contributions. I think this is critical for the health of teams in the workplace!

Finally, I challenge you to work through the B.R.A.V.I.N.G. acronym for yourself. It’s an interesting exercise, because it can help uncover ways in which we may be unknowingly sabotaging our achievement of trust in the workplace. I can feel good about my strengths and also know in which areas I need to improve. Trust in the workplace is a worthy and achievable goal!

Here is Brene Brown’s full SuperSoul Session talk on “The Anatomy of Trust”:

Here is a beautifully illustrated, 2-minute version of the same talk (artwork by Isabella El-Hasan):

Critical Friends


Work friends are the best. Some of the most superb humans I’ve ever known have come straight out of staff rooms in Tegucigalpa, Jakarta, Manila, suburban Chicago, and, for a brief time in my early ’20s, downtown Chicago cubicles. Work friends are also unique because they tend to represent a wide range of people I wouldn’t necessarily have met otherwise– they have been artists, athletes, adventurers, curmudgeons, Suzy Sunshines, professors, class clowns, and everything in-between. All of these people have enriched my life and made me a better person in some way or another. The very closest friends I’ve made along the way, however, fall into two main categories: “You’re the BEST!” Friends and Critical Friends.

I would describe “You’re the BEST!” Friends as those on whom you can rely to tell you that you’re the BEST! You’re so RIGHT! You are NOT wrong! They don’t question your actions, they’re not concerned with the complete picture and whether or not you really did mess up or act less than stellar in a situation. Their main concern is to support you and make you feel good. Who doesn’t love and need these friends?! I act as this type of friend to some people, I have some people who are this kind of friend to me, and I’m sure you have this type of friend, too. They’re who you go to for venting, when you need a strong dose of self-confidence, and maybe when you know you’re wrong but don’t really care or want to acknowledge it in that moment– you just need someone to tell you how awesome you are! Who does this for you? Aren’t they the best?! These friends are important– like I said, we need them to give us a boost now and then. If they’re the only type of work friend that we cultivate, however, we are short-changing ourselves and missing out on an opportunity for growth.

The other type of work friends I’ve made along the way are Critical Friends. The Glossary of Education Reform defines a Critical Friend as: typically a colleague or other educational professional, such as a school coach, who is committed to helping an educator or school improve. A critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.

While Critical Friends can actually be a school-wide protocol, complete with official structures and formal Critical Friends Groups, for the purpose of this blog I am referring to informal friends who act in a Critical Friend way. Do you have someone like this in your work life? I can think of two friends who fulfill this role for me– Nick and Kari. Critical Friends are different than mentors, the importance of whom I have also written about here, in that they don’t need to have more work experience than you, or be in a higher place on the organizational chart. They simply have to provide you with honest feedback, thoughtful questions, and with a lens to view your blind spots. The other crucial components of Critical Friends are that there is a very high level of trust involved, as well as the belief that this person cares about you and is acting in a manner designed to help you become the best person/employee/colleague/leader possible.

An area that I have personally invested a lot of energy and have experienced growth over time is my ability to ask for and accept constructive criticism. I won’t say that it’s still my favorite thing in the world, but I also know that no one is perfect and that all we as humans can do is try our best to grow, and question, and fail forward. In Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s honest feedback to her then-employee, Google director Kim Scott, is described. Sandberg told Scott that saying “um” every three words during her otherwise-successful presentation to Google executives made her sound “stupid.” Harsh, right? This is what a Critical Friend can do. They can point out your blind spots and give you really pointed feedback like this because trust has been established and it’s understood that the person giving the feedback has only the recipient’s best interests at heart. When I was working on my Failure conference presentation a few months back, I asked my friend Nick for his feedback. He and I circled back several times during the process, all the way up to the night before my presentation. His early feedback was fairly brutal– but ultimately correct. He could see the weaknesses in the presentation’s structure and was able to articulate them to me in a way that made sense and allowed me to move forward in a better direction.

He and Kari have also helped me navigate a variety of work issues, large and small. I go to them when I truly want to know what they think of a situation. Did I address this in the right way? What could I have done differently? What could that person’s motivation have been? They don’t indulge me– instead, they ask thoughtful questions that help me re-frame how I think about things. I like to think that our Critical Friendship is mutual, that I help them in these same ways.

Not everyone can be a Critical Friend, and that’s okay. But cultivate these friendships, and look for them if you don’t have one at the moment. Take a risk and ask a trusted colleague for their honest feedback– or offer that to someone you think might be receptive to it. Together you can go farther than you’d ever imagined.

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… just be my friend”
― Albert Camus

“Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
― E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web