Can people learn to be trustworthy? The short answer is yes, with the right design.

Excerpted from The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, this article addresses some of the biggest challenges of trustworthiness training (or any “soft skills” training, for that matter) with nine specific strategies.

Use them as a checklist to make sure your investment in trustworthiness training is designed to pay off—whether you’re creating your own learning program or considering hiring others to help.

Trustworthiness Training Is Not Like Other Training

There are at least two very real challenges when it comes to training for trustworthiness:

    • You can’t learn trustworthiness from a textbook. Learning to be trustworthy requires high-touch experiences combined with practice over time to become habitual. You can’t just cognitively understand your way into leading with trust. It takes time and practice to become natural.
  • If your underlying mindset is not right, trustworthiness skills will be ineffective. Attitudes and ways of thinking drive decisions and actions. You may have exceptional interpersonal skills that would be thwarted, either temporarily or consistently, by a limiting mindset.

What this means: A different kind of training requires a different kind of approach.

Intellectual Understanding Won’t Cut It; “Ahas” Are the End Game

The answer to these challenges lies in a creative, dynamic, and sometimes unconventional approach to trustworthiness, starting with experiencing the aha moment.

The aha moment is the epiphany about how trust works. It is when you get it. It happens when you gain a clear and often sudden understanding of the complex dynamics of trust. It is like a little opening of the psyche: through it, you see something you never saw before—an enabling way of being, a specific skill gap, or an opportunity to take action. Experiencing the aha directly challenges the underlying mindsets that have been holding you back.

An aha goes beyond intellectual understanding. For example, you might read Chapter 3, “The Dynamics of Influence,” in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook and come to recognize listening as the key to being influential. But it is not until you receive specific feedback during an exercise that you see precisely where your listening skills fall short, even though you felt pretty good at listening in the first place.

An aha engages the brain and the heart: You understand something in a new way and at the same time you feel compelled to act on that new understanding.

Good Design Makes Ahas Far More Likely

Ahas are facilitated by good design.

We suggest nine ways to set the stage for as many “aha” moments as possible. Use them as a checklist to make sure your investment in trustworthiness training is designed to pay off—whether you’re creating your own learning program or considering hiring others to help.

Note: Large-scale training programs—those that run several days for a large number of people—will ideally use all of them.

1. Use simple frameworks. Break trustworthiness into bite-sized, digestible pieces that are easy to remember—for example, the Trust Equation.

2. Provide out-of-character experiences. Use role-playing exercises, simulations, and other experiential learning events to challenge existing mindsets and allow something new and really different to emerge. Make these 80 percent of your design, not 20 percent. Stretch participants outside their comfort zones into a place where their assumptions, paradigms, and beliefs are temporarily suspended. Note that very few people actually like these until after they have experienced them, and some never like them. Don’t let that stop you.

3. Fail forward. The brain actually works better when making mistakes. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer reports that a computer programmed to play chess by measuring what it got “wrong” ended up beating the reigning chess champion.2 In the case of trustworthiness training, design role-playing exercises that allow participants to make mistakes safely—when participants see how they went wrong, they can learn indelible lessons while simultaneously conquering their fears.3

4. Tell stories. Stories convey the paradoxes of trustworthiness better than any rigorous intellectual model. They are an especially powerful tool for shifting mindsets. Stories motivate, persuade, inform, and inspire by engaging intellect and emotions. Stories also provide a vivid example of what success looks and feels like, painting a clear picture of how changes in thought, action, and ways of being have led to greater success.

5. Encourage the tough conversations. There is no trust without risk, and there is no learning about trustworthiness without risk either. It’s vital to discuss thought-provoking concepts, teach tough lessons, and engage in candid conversations. Welcome and validate honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability.

6. Link in real-life situations. There is no substitute for learning how to apply trust lessons within a specific business context—that is what the real world demands, after all. Bridge the gap between theory and application. Use custom-developed group cases as well as individual participants’ scenarios (“I’ve got a stakeholder who …”) so that learning can be applied right away.

7. Incorporate personal feedback. Highly personalized learning can be life-changing. Individual feedback from self-assessment instruments, stakeholder interviews, and 360° reviews often reveals blind spots, limiting beliefs, and skill gaps in a compelling way. Ideally, this feedback is gathered both before and after a learning program so that shifts can be tracked and celebrated.

8. Make time for reflection. Reflection is a critical part of the adult learning process.4 Through reflection, you will find patterns and meaning in an experience, which in turn bring clarity to situations. Do this as an individual and as a group. For example, at the individual level, private learning journals written without self-consciousness or inhibition can help articulate new insights and what to do next.5

9. Mix up learning groups. Create regular opportunities for wide cross-sections of staff to work together. A max-mix, or maximum mixture, represents diversity in terms of seniority, specialization, geographical location, and more. These can spark aha moments better than more homogeneous groups.

Are You Designing Or Designing Well?

“Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” That’s a quote from graphic designer Brian Reed. We think Brian’s point of view is just as relevant to professional development, especially when it comes to soft skills, like trustworthiness.

How do your learning programs stack up to the nine-point checklist for successful trustworthiness training?

We’d love to hear.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).