Charles Feltman has been coaching, facilitating, consulting, and training people who lead others for over 25 years. Prior to starting his coaching and consulting business, he spent a decade in leadership roles in technology industry companies. Today Charles’ work is concentrated in three primary areas: coaching individual leaders and leadership teams, leadership development programs, and supporting trust at work.
Charles is the author of The Thin Book® of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Clients include executives, managers, and teams from Aerospace Corp., Calstar Air Ambulance, Cognizant, Comfort Systems, Designit, Genpact, Intel, Siemens, ST Microelectronics, SealedAir, UCB (Pharma), UCSF, NASA, US National Park Service, USDA, Heifer Project International, and The Nature Conservancy. Charles holds a BA in psychology from U.C. Santa Cruz and a master’s in organization development and communication from the University of Southern California.
When we trust others – including organizations – we do business with them whenever it makes sense. When we don’t, we look for alternatives. Trust is the foundation of every positive relationship, and its absence is the reason so many relationships struggle. In the product space especially, where we’re building complicated things that don’t yet exist, the risk of failure is everywhere. Teams that trust overcome these challenges to find innovation and success, says Charles Feltman.
In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean is joined by Charles Feltman, author of The Thin Book of Trust and a nationally recognized expert in organizational trust. Charles offers a unique perspective: “I talk about trust, or more specifically, trusting, as making what I value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”
The essence of Charles’ definition is the reliance on another individual to honor and protect what we hold dear. Even more important is the notion that our act of mutual trust “will further our work together.” So whether it’s a relationship between two friends or the complex interactions among an entire software team, when we make what’s important to each member vulnerable to others, we create an environment in which we can work more effectively together.
This is precisely the kind of psychologically safe environment in which innovation abounds and product teams thrive. Trusting behaviors manifest in team compacts – explicit, agreed-upon ways of working that members buy into and are set to live by – foundational activities for newer teams searching for a foothold. And for established teams focused on next-level performance.
Catch the entire episode to hear Charles describe trust as a compilation of four assessment domains, including Care, Sincerity, Reliability, and Competence.
Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Project Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.
Sean [00:00:43] Well, hello. Today, I have the great pleasure of chatting with Charles Feltman. He’s the author of The Book of Trust and just a great thought leader. I’ve been chasing him for a while to get him on the pod. He’s an organizational trust expert, bar none, everyone agrees in the space. I think we have a lot to learn from Charles. He’s going to share with us in this podcast a framework that we should pay close attention to as leaders in any space, but especially in the product space, because we’re building complicated things, and that requires a lot of trust. So I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed recording it.
Sean [00:01:17] Well, hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. Today, I’m super excited to have Charles Feltman joining us. He’s the author of The Thin Book of Trust, which is now in its second edition. He’s a transformational coach for CEOs and leaders across America. He’s been coaching for 27 and a half years for companies like Cisco Systems, Genpact, Intel, Siemens, the National Park Service, USDA, and lots of other companies. He brings a wealth of trust-building experience to us today. Charles, welcome to the show.
Charles [00:01:48] Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to our conversation today. We’ve had several other conversations about this topic. I know it’s an important one for you as well. So I’m looking forward to this.
Sean [00:01:59] All right. So, Charles, you and I met at the Trust Across America, Trust Around the World Consortium with Barbara Brooks Kimmel a few years back and we’ve had some incredible conversations about trust. I’d like for you to start by sharing your really unique definition of trust because I think it’s a powerful definition that we can all relate to.
Charles [00:02:16] Sure. I talk about trust, or more specifically, trusting, as making what you value vulnerable to another person’s actions. So essentially you’re saying, “okay, this is something that’s important to me, and in trusting this person, I recognize that I’m making that, whatever it is, vulnerable to their actions, knowing that even though I may have a great deal of trust in this person, there’s still some possibility that it could go awry; but generally, I make it vulnerable to them because I do believe that they’re going to honor what it is and protect what it is that I’m making vulnerable to them, they’re not going to misuse it in some way, and further, that by doing so, and this is the important part, I will further our work together.” So whether that’s just you and me, Sean, or it’s a team that we’re all on, by making what’s important to me vulnerable to others, I am creating a situation in which we can work more effectively together.
Sean [00:03:22] Yeah. So we all know that teams that trust each other function better together. So when you’re setting up a new team, and this is the thing in the software space, we’re often having to start new teams or onboard new people into an existing team or change the structure of a team. Do you have any tips or ideas and some things that you’ve seen work really, really well in the past when we’re thinking about making sure that teams are foundationally set up for trust?
Charles [00:03:47] Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I find is important over and over again is, actually several things, including what is trustworthy behavior here, what we expect from each other with regard to trust and trustworthiness, but other things as well. So having this kind of set of team agreements that everyone is set to live by. First of all, if you’re starting a new team, that’s a great place to start having conversations around those important things, including, you know, “what do we mean by trustworthy behavior and what do we mean by untrustworthy behavior?” So everyone is kind of on the same page around that.
Charles [00:04:23] And then, of course, if you have an existing team, but you’re bringing new people into it, again, bringing them in and being explicit about sharing that with them so that they have that as a foundation. It’s a foundational piece for the whole team. And not just doing that once and, you know, putting it away in a folder somewhere, but actually reminding, having team members kind of check in with that periodically, “Oh, what are our agreements?”.
Charles [00:04:46] And the other important thing about this, of course, is that we’re human. We mess up. One of us will break that agreement, this one or that one, how are we going to handle that when it happens? So when I screw up and I break one of our team agreements around trust or whatever and you notice that Sean, what’s your responsibility? What are you going to do and what can I expect from you?
Sean [00:05:12] So when you say agreements, do you have some examples? In the software space, we have these things like “the definition of done” or “the definition of ready,” which helps us create explicit things for our team around the products that we’re actually building. But I think there’s some real value, and that’s why I’m pulling on this thread, to coming up with some specific agreements in the team space around certain types of behaviors. So do you have any examples that you could maybe share?
Charles [00:05:40] Well, I think maybe back up a little bit. So I have a framework with which I talk about trust. So trust is not just one thing. It’s not just, “Okay, I trust you” or “I don’t trust you,” but rather that we trust. And again, let me say that trust is an assessment. That is, it’s something that I assess that I can trust you because X, Y, Z. So I talk about that in four different domains because it makes it a lot easier to think about trust when there are smaller chunks rather than just this big thing.
Charles [00:06:15] So the domains that I use are care, the definition of which is I assess that you have my interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take action. That you have my back, essentially, that your intentions towards me are good. In a team setting, that often can mean simply that we have shared care, we have shared interests, and we all support those shared interests. One of those interests, of course, is, “what is our shared promise as a team?” I consider that teams are groups of people that have shared promise. And so what is that and do we all support it? I don’t have to be constantly checking up on all of my teammates because I believe that they all share the same shared promise, if you will, and that they all are supporting. So that’s the domain of care.
Charles [00:07:10] And you can see now some of the behaviors there, right? So one of them might be that we may have lots of somewhat heated discussions around a decision that we need to make. We have different viewpoints. People have different ideas of where it should go, and we might have an agreement. But ultimately, once that decision is made, everybody lines up behind it. Even if they still don’t necessarily agree with it, they line up behind it. They line up behind it, certainly publicly outside of the team. So that’s a demonstration of care of the team and our team members. So that’s one of the assessment domains of trust that I talk about.
Charles [00:07:47] Another one is sincerity, which is really kind of a combination of being honest and walking your talk, having integrity, or acting with integrity. So, you know, you think about that, “okay, what are the behaviors that we’re going to agree on with each other around honesty, and are there limits to that, especially with regard to the team leader?” But it also may mean that we are explicit as much as we can be around, you know, “I work in marketing, you work in engineering, and Peter works in manufacturing and we have allegiances to those departments and there may be conflict sometimes, and so what are our expectations around how honest we’re going to be about what’s going on in our department versus the team?” Or in the other direction, “what’s going on in our team, and what do we say or talk about within our department that we may have an allegiance to?”.
Charles [00:08:48] So there’s that honesty piece, and then, of course, there’s the integrity piece, walking one’s talk. And what does that actually look like on the team? “What do I expect and what can you expect of me and how do we confront that with each other?” So, for example, if we have an agreement that it’s good to give each other feedback about our thoughts. We want to hear that feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, we want to hear it. So that’s an agreement that we have. And of course, you know, sometimes people get touchy about that sort of thing and so they go into defensive mode. So there’s another agreement around, you know, how do we deal with how we handle that when somebody is not really listening to feedback? And in that same domain, we might have agreements around how we bring up or give each other feedback. What does it sound like and look like? So there’s this domain of sincerity and trustworthiness in that domain.
Charles [00:09:45] Another domain, which, of course, I find over and over and over and over and over again, is where trust breakdowns can happen on teams, and that’s the domain of reliability, which means, essentially, you keep the commitments you make. Or if something is coming up that’s preventing you from keeping that commitment that you let everybody know as soon as you possibly can. But really, it’s about keeping commitments. And for me, there’s kind of what I call the cycle of commitment, of language, of requests, responses to requests, and then going forward from there, getting the work done. So when I work with teams, I often talk about, “okay, here’s this language, here’s this framework or this cycle of commitment. And I know many, many, many, many teams that have adopted this and it’s been really beneficial for them in terms of cutting down on thrash because people end up making clear, trustworthy commitments with each other. Whether that commitment is, “yes, this is what I’ll do,” or, “no, this is what I won’t do or can’t do.”
Sean [00:10:57] Yeah. There’s something in that one about actually making commitments too, right? So teams that don’t actually make commitments to each other don’t have anything to keep. And I like there’s some power in those cycles of commitment.
Charles [00:11:08] Oh, yes, that’s a big piece of that. If commitments are never really committed to, then nothing can get done, wrong things could get done. So this is actually, and in fact, I’m about to do a half-day workshop with a client specifically around the cycle of commitment, if you will, and the language, and saying yes, saying no, what does it all mean? You know, making trustworthy commitments, making criminal commitments, which are ones that I know darn well I shouldn’t make because I know I’m not going to be able to follow through, but somehow I feel like I need to say yes anyway. And then there’s heroic commitments, ones that I make, and I’m actually committing myself to like an all-nighter or whatever it is, and too many of those and I burn out and I stop serving the team well. And so there’s are all sorts of stuff around that. So, as I said, it’s often worth a four-hour workshop.
Charles [00:12:00] The last assessment domain under trust is competence. That is to say, “I trust that you have the skills, knowledge, experience, capability, resources to do what you say you’re going to do or to do what I’m asking you to do, or if you don’t, that you will ask for it, that you’ll let me know that you don’t.” And interestingly, often with engineering teams that I work with, I’ll ask, “okay, of those four domains of trust, what’s the most important one for you in assessing someone else’s trustworthiness?” And probably 80% of the people in the room will say, “competence, I want to work with competent engineers on my team; I don’t want anybody who’s not competent.” But what is important in terms of setting up a team for success and for being able to be a high-trust team is having conversations around, “what are our standards of competence?” Because on the one hand, I’m sure you’ve been on teams where there’s perfectionism, and perfectionism is often the enemy of good. And so, “what is our standard? Is our standard going to be perfect? Is it going to be ‘good enough,’ or where in between?” You know, where obviously not good enough, most teams don’t have that standard. “But where in between are we going?” And that, again, is going to be a conversation ongoing. But having a conversation with that when you’re starting the team is valuable. So I’m going to stop there and say, what’s landing with you as you listen to this?
Sean [00:13:39] What about growth? In the software development domain, there’s pretty much nothing that we build that doesn’t take some amount of growth and learning. So it requires you to make some commitments that you’re not sure you know how you’re going to be able to keep. How do you handle that?
Charles [00:13:56] Yes. And so there again, there’s a conversation around that.
Sean [00:13:59] Yeah.
Charles [00:14:00] Notice that I’m talking about all these conversations, and these conversations, when you get back down to it, can be vulnerable sometimes.
Sean [00:14:06] Yeah.
Charles [00:14:07] In order to have these conversations well and come out the other end of it with something useful, people have to be vulnerable and sort of speak their mind and they where they come from. So yeah, acknowledge, “I may make a commitment to something and when I get into it, I may really quickly realize that I can’t keep that commitment”. And there again, we go back to, “oh, one of our agreements is that if I can’t keep it, I need to say something about it.” Or even have like a, you know, “this is green, we’re working on it, it’s working; yellow, uh, you know, there’s some problems here, here they are, as far as I can tell, and we could hit a big hitch, red, we’ve hit a hitch and I don’t know where, you know, we’re going to go any further.” But keeping everybody up to date on that, not just holding off and hoping that somehow it’s all going to work out in the end and, you know, I just, you know, press forward.
Sean [00:15:02] You said something earlier about trust being an assessment. Can you explain what you mean when you say it’s an assessment?
Charles [00:15:08] Yeah. So an assessment, other words are belief, opinion, judgment. Those are all kind of in the same family. In other words, I am assessing something, and assessments always have to do with the future. So I’m assessing something in terms of how it’s going to impact me and/or others in the future. An assessment about trust, of course, is I’m assessing that this person is trustworthy or will be trustworthy in the future in whatever domain we’re talking about in terms of whatever behavior. An assessment is never true or false. It’s not the truth. It’s an assessment. It ideally is what I call well grounded. That is, it’s grounded in data. It’s grounded in evidence that tells me, “yeah, this is a pretty accurate assessment,” or, “hm, maybe it’s not a very accurate assessment and maybe I better rethink it.” And I like the word assessment because in our culture now, the word judgment has become synonymous with a negative assessment, whereas the word assessment hasn’t been painted that way. So I have lots of positive assessments about things and about people and stuff, and I may have some negative assessments about people as well. But the moment I say I have a judgment…
Sean [00:16:30] It’s negative, right?
Charles [00:16:32] The person is preparing for the worst here.
Sean [00:16:34] Yeah. One other thing I want to pull on is you’ve mentioned, you know, sometimes the concept of reliability or sincerity. You sort of hinted to this in both of those that there’s going to be breakdowns. And you mentioned having an agreement to deal with that, like have an agreement to deal with when there’s a breakdown in perceived trust. Because it’s always perceived, right?
Charles [00:16:52] Yeah, it’s an assessment.
Sean [00:16:54] So any advice for teams that know they’re at a low-trust state, in terms of where to start?
Charles [00:17:00] Okay. So first of all, I guess one of the questions I would have, one of the questions I ask when I’m working with a team is, “what do you assess your level of trust is with each other?” And if I get back, that I hear people say individually, “it’s low.” Okay, what’s going on? What do you think is the source of the breakdown? So having a breakdown, for example, in the domain of reliability when people are not keeping their commitments and it’s just the way things are. For example, I worked with a team, I really just worked with that particular model of the cycle of commitment with a group of teams and so where we worked with each one of them.
Charles [00:17:46] But the first time we spoke with the whole team that was struggling to meet commitments, we were kind of asking about things. And my colleague asked, “Well, how would things be here if whenever you asked someone to do something and they said ‘yes,’ then you didn’t have to worry about it again, you would know that they were going to deliver?” And this was a room full of project managers, actually, and there was a silence and then they all started laughing. And one of them said, “we’d be out of a job! Our whole role here is to constantly go around and make sure everybody is doing what they’re doing.” And that was the breakdown was that people didn’t always follow through and so the project managers’ role was to constantly be on them and try to get them to follow through. So those things are going to happen.
Charles [00:18:36] I guess your question, really, is how do we, as a team talk about that when there’s a breakdown? And I think the first thing to acknowledge is, “what is the breakdown?” That’s what I like about the four domains of trust is if you can identify what domain or domains the breakdown is occurring in, then it’s easier to get directly to the behaviors involved. And I want to stress this partly because many of us have, if we can really interrogate our understanding of the world, we have this belief that untrustworthy behavior comes from a moral failing. And so it’s hard to talk about it, right? I mean, if I think somebody’s moral compass is not on straight, well, how am I going to talk about this? So I think one of the things that is valuable early on is to talk about trust and, “what are our expectations around it?” Because then it begins to normalize and socialize trust as behavior as opposed to trust as a moral, either, you know, “I’m morally superior,” or, “I’m morally inferior.” It’s about, “oh, no, I always did it this way, but I guess I could change.” Or, you know, “jeez, these are the behaviors that we’ve always had with each other as a team, but, you know, it’s not serving us right now and what can we do here?”
Sean [00:19:57] Do you think there’s some value in sort of destigmatizing that, like allowing some space for, you know, there’s going to be breakdowns in perceived trust, like, let’s have open conversations about it and not place moral judgment on it? Yeah.
Charles [00:20:09] Yeah, absolutely.
Sean [00:20:10] That’s good advice.
Charles [00:20:11] And one of the agreements that I recommend or offer to teams to be part of their agreements very specifically is, when there’s a breakdown in trust, address it right away. Address it as soon as you think it might be there. And in fact, on high-trust teams, teams with, you know, high-trust cultures, as I call it, one of the hallmarks is that they actually do talk about trust and they talk about trust breakdowns. But even before they come to a breakdown, they have an agreement with each other around talking about breakdowns when they seem to occur.
Sean [00:20:49] Cool. Alright. I’m going to summarize our conversation so far if that’s alright with you.
Charles [00:20:53] Yeah, absolutely.
Sean [00:20:54] So here’s some of the notes that I captured. One, I love your definition of trust and I want to state it again: “making something that’s important to me vulnerable to the actions of another.” The second point I captured is to be explicit about agreements around trust. And you have a set of four that I’m going to go through. But being explicit about these agreements, like stating them, maybe even writing them down, is a powerful way to set a team up for success when it comes to trust. And along with that, so number three, being explicit about how to handle perceived breaches of trust without placing moral judgment on it. The fourth thing that I captured is that trust is an assessment about the impact on the future. So I think when we recognize that we’re using this distinction in a powerful way, we understand it’s about the future. So we’re making the assessment today, but it’s about our future ability to work together. So it’s something that we can’t just put on a shelf, can’t talk about it once and forget about it. It needs to be baked into the way in which we speak to each other, the way in which we interact.
Sean [00:21:47] And then you shared with us your four domains from the book. So the first one was this domain of care. So the assessment of intentions, that your intentions are good, that we actually care about each other. What I heard you say that I found really, really interesting is that, like, what makes a team a team is the promises that we share together. So having these shared promises, maybe even written down, I think is a powerful lesson for teams to take back to the trenches here. The second one is sincerity, around sincerity. So being honest and consistent between what we say and what we do, right, knowing that there will be breakdowns, which is why we need to also have agreements for how to handle those perceived breaches. And then you stated two different types of agreements. One, an agreement that we will hold each other accountable for being honest, and then second, agreements for how we give each other that feedback, which I think is powerful.
Sean [00:22:35] Third was reliability, agreements about making and keeping commitments. And I captured like 3A in there about not making criminal commitments, those types of commitments that you know, you can’t keep. The fourth assessment around trust is this assessment of competence. And this, I think, is probably one of the most important one in our space, in the software development space, because, like I said, we’re building things that don’t yet exist. So we have to take some risks, we have to try things that we are not exactly sure we’re going to be able to do. So it’s really important to be honest about our assessments of our competence and our communication about what we actually know how to do and what we’re going to be spiking or experimenting with. And the way you stated it is that you trust that the skills, the tools, the talent, the knowledge, all the things you need to do the thing are there and that you’ll be honest. And I also captured inside of that, this agreement about having standards of competence that we agree to because that’s what’s going to allow for progress and also allow us to be accountable for our own growth. How’s that for a summary?
Charles [00:23:33] Thank you. That was lovely. That’s like the cheat notes for my book, The Cliff Notes for my book for teams specifically. That’s great.
Sean [00:23:41] But I still think the audience should go buy the book and read it because it’s an incredible book. It certainly changed my viewpoints on trust. I got a couple more questions for you and then we’ll wrap up, Charles. Sound good?
Charles [00:23:50] Sounds good.
Sean [00:23:51] How do you define innovation?
Charles [00:23:53] Ooh, innovation. Well, you kind of talked about it a minute ago. It’s bringing something into being that has not been before. And, boy, there has to be a lot of trust. Just think about the investors, for example…
Sean [00:24:08] Sure.
Charles [00:24:08] …In a new company, they’re hoping that this innovation is going to be great and it’s going to change things and it’s going to do whatever promises they’re hoping for. But they’re also concerned about the budgets and all that sort of thing and how there’s clashes. And so having conversations around trust there, I would imagine as well, not just at the team level, but at the higher level of the company leaders and investors and the board or whatever. So yeah, because like you said, you’re trying to bring something into existence that may never have been before. And it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, what i is it blue sky.
Sean [00:24:45] Blue sky strategy, yeah… Blue Ocean, Blue Ocean Strategy.
Charles [00:24:49] Blue Ocean. Yeah.
Sean [00:24:50] You’re leading right into my next question. Do you have any recommendations for our listeners on where to learn more about this stuff, like trust, or even just for our audience in general?
Charles [00:25:02] Well, one book that I’m reading right now, I’m almost done with it that I really am appreciating. A little while ago, I used the term culture of trust in a team. This is a book called ReCulturing by Melissa Daimler, and in it, she makes the point, very well, that culture isn’t a thing. It’s not a noun. It’s a verb. That we’re always in culture and culturing with each other. And so understanding that, I think, is really powerful, particularly for the leadership, but even anybody else on the team. There are often little podcasts or whatever that come up, particularly of value, Harvard Business Review. They have some great stuff. Trust Across America, Trust Around the World has some good stuff if you want to investigate. They have a couple of little books that have a lot of exercises that you can do as a team to open up discussions about trust and build trust with each other. Very nice stuff in there.
Sean [00:26:02] Barbara’s done some great work with that consortium, for sure.
Charles [00:26:05] Yeah, the author would be Barbara Brooks Kimmel. But actually, the authors in it are all these different trust practitioners like I am and probably a dozen others. If I had a few moments I could think of them, but I think really for me, just having conversations, having a framework, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s my framework or Stephen Covey’s framework or Brene` Brown’s framework or Charlie Green’s framework, but having a framework that you’re going to work with so that you can have conversations with each other about trust and other things that really matter with regard to the team that are somewhat structured, that provide enough structure so that people can have sometimes challenging conversations and feel safe enough to be uncomfortable in those challenging conversations so they can get through them successfully, come out the other side with something better than they had before. Talk about innovation. That’s in a sense, it’s innovation in the moment around not a thing, not a new invention or a new software product, but rather, innovation in a personal relationship.
Sean [00:27:16] In how you think, in how you interact.
Charles [00:27:17] Yeah.
Sean [00:27:18] That’s innovative in and of itself, right?
Charles [00:27:20] Yes.
Sean [00:27:21] I do like your addition to the trust lexicon. Like you said, we tend to think of competence as the primary thing we assess trust on. Is this something that’s going to be competent, is it going to do the job or is it not going to do the job? But we leave out the caring component, which is really, really important when you think about teams and you think about long-term trust. It’s not enough just to be competent, you have to have that positive intent and those shared goals.
Charles [00:27:44] Well, and I think you put it really well in another call that you and I had talking about this, that the competence and reliability domains of trustworthiness really are about the content, and the sincerity and care domains are about the context in which we are talking about the content.
Sean [00:28:05] Yeah. Well, awesome, Charles, thank you so much for joining us. This was a great, great chat. I can’t wait to get this published.
Charles [00:28:12] Thank you. It’s been a good conversation. I really appreciate it.
Paul [00:28:18] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.