Five Pathways for Rebuilding Trust
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a northern California dog rescue organization letting me know that there were a number of Bernese Mountain Dogs, rescued from an Ohio puppy mill, who needed ‘forever’ homes. Having owned ‘Berners’ for over 40 years, I have a very special love and affinity for the breed. In addition, having ‘rescued’ my previous dog who passed 18 months ago, I somewhat arrogantly thought I could easily handle whatever might be thrown at me. So, I brought home a ‘puppy mill momma’ of unknown age called Ivy. Boy was I wrong and in so being, the universe has brought me a fantastic opportunity to relearn firsthand the leadership challenges involved in rebuilding trust when it has been severely broken.
So what does it look like when there is a severe trust breakdown between a human and a dog? Well firstly, Ivy is shut down to such a degree that there is no response to human voice or touch in any form. No tail wagging, no cocked head, no ear movement, and no nose nudging for under the chin or tummy scratching. There is an unprecedented degree of fearfulness in her body language. Normally warm and friendly brown eyes are fully dilated so that they look like black holes and her tail is tightly tucked between her back legs all the time. She is constantly seeking out the darkest most distant space to hide in both inside and outside the house. This I presume is to recreate the dark, cold barn that was until recently her only experience of safety and belonging. When out walking, she moves with unprecedented hesitancy with little or no sniffing or interest in checking out the environment. Most surprising is an unwillingness to eat or drink except when crated at night. This again is likely symbolic of the life she’d previously led and until now the only relationships she’s ever known.
In a 2018 TedTalk, Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei shared that “Trust is the foundation for everything we do.” Not only is this true with team or boss-to-employee relationships, but it is also true with human and dog relationships as well. Determined to help Ivy reconnect with humans again, I decided to see and assess if any of my agile, adaptive, and attentive leadership writings and readings over these last few years had anything useful to offer. To my surprise, there are many parallels. Here are a few, that I hope will pique your interest.
Time Heals Most Wounds
First, is to deeply understand that this effort is going to take a long time and that I need to be confident in my own interpretation of Ivy and my shared reality, and be willing to rely on my own instincts as to what will work best based on our evolving circumstances. In order to do this well, I have needed to get really clear about my own ‘Propensity to Trust,’ i.e. my own general willingness to trust others. At the moment we are pretty well opposite. She’s not willing to trust at all and I am likely far too trusting for my own good.
Self-Awareness Grounded in a Growth Mindset Trumps Everything
Secondly, has been to step back and re-commit to attentive self-reflection that supports a ‘test-deploy-retest-redeploy’ growth mindset. This means helping Ivy day-by-day, minute-by-minute, overcome the negative power of ‘learning anxiety’. As articulated by Edgar and Peter Shein in 2017, ‘learning anxiety’ is the overarching fear that learning a new way of working will cause a loss of position, power or self-esteem, or even group membership. Now of course Ivy has no way of articulating concerns she might have about the loss of power or self-esteem, but she can articulate fear and anxiety. So if I can pay close enough attention to see which ways that I behave reduce her level of anxiety and which don’t, maybe over time I can help her move to a more positive and trusting space.
Purpose, Outcomes, and Guiding Principles Will Always Lead the Way
Thirdly, has been to make sure that I am clear as to what our collective ‘Purpose’ is and that Ivy understands not just the ‘Desired Outcomes’ I am expecting, but also the ‘Guiding Principles’ that we will follow together to achieve those outcomes. For example, I expect her to come out of her crate in the mornings unaided, eat meals in the kitchen or outside during the day, and confidently come into the house after our morning walks. Now establishing these new behaviours might need some repeating and reminding. But if we do them together, with patience, understanding and lots of positive reinforcement, over time I expect her to achieve them on her own.
Communications and Empathy Set the Stage for Success
Fourthly, is constant communication through positive voice reinforcement, non-threatening body language, and careful and empathetic listening? With these tools, and by modeling transparent performance feedback mechanisms, I can immerse myself in trying to understand Ivy’s perspective both good and bad. Based on this new understanding, we can together make agile and adaptive ‘on the fly’ course corrections that result in a win-win for us both. In this way both our hearts and our minds can be engaged.
Authenticity Ties it All Together
Lastly, is to focus on enabling activities that can break down barriers between us, create deeper connections, and even share vulnerabilities will allow each of us to eventually bring our authentic selves to this new relationship. For Ivy this will involve opportunities to see the greater world on our walks, meet strangers (both human and dog), visit other houses, and eat lots of new and different kinds of food. Given the life that she has had so far, it is not at all clear that Ivy knows what her authentic self is, so helping her on that journey is imperative.
In summary, as Daniel Coyle wrote so well in his book The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, the primary keys are:
“Personal, up-close connections (body language, attention, and behavior) that translates as ‘I Care About You’; performance feedback (relentless coaching and <constructive> criticism) that translates as ‘We Have High Standards Here’; a Big Picture perspective that translates as ‘Life is Bigger Than Our Team’, builds a relational narrative that communicates that you are part of this group. This group is special and I believe you can reach the standards of the special group.”
These central tenets work not just for fractured human-dog relationships but also for building and rebuilding trust with human direct and cross-functional teams. Stay tuned as I continue to apply these leadership skills in rebuilding Ivy’s trust in human connections.