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“Partnering” by Jean Oelwang

Tangible lessons from 65+ of the world's most remarkable partnerships.

January 4, 2023

7 ways to build greater trust in all of your partnerships

Quick question: How many relationships do you currently have where you feel like the other person has your back? And how would you like to have more of them? 

In her new book Partnering, Jean Oelwang — president and founding CEO of Virgin Unite — explores how we find and cultivate just those kinds of bonds, which she calls “Deep Connections.” As she writes, “Deep Connections are relationships of purpose that make us who we are. They are the enduring ‘got your back’ friendships found in all aspects of our lives. These relationships help us become our best selves and multiply the impact we make in the world.”

For the book, Oelwang interviewed hundreds of people in all kinds of partnerships — work partnerships, friend partnerships and life partnerships. In it, she identifies the core principles that underpin great partnerships, the daily rituals that partners use to stay in sync, and the skills that allow them to disagree respectfully and productively. Below, she shares advice on how you can incorporate trust into your most important partnerships, whether they’re personal or professional. 

Trust is by far the most critical element of the ecosystem of a partnership. 

“Trust is all-important. If you don’t trust somebody, it doesn’t work,” shared Henry Arnhold, the late cofounder of Mulago Foundation. He went on to describe an enduring trust — in which you trust each other with your lives, grounded in something bigger than yourselves, with a consistent belief in each other’s good intentions — as an essential component in cultivating meaningful lives and organizations.

Grounding our relationships in trust is fundamental to our well-being and to our businesses. The Edelman Trust Barometer study, which has polled 34,000 people across 28 countries every year for two decades, shows that “in the past 20 years, we have seen a fracturing of trust, but an increase in its value. Trust has emerged, like freedom and security, as itself a barometer of a successful society.”

Trust can be even more difficult, and often more rewarding, when you embrace connection with people outside your inner circle. And yet, it can be done, even among complete strangers

Consider Airbnb. When cofounders Joe Gebbia, Brian Chesky and Nate Blecharczyk founded the company in 2007, the idea of allowing strangers into your home seemed radical, even Pollyannaish.

The team set out to counter any hesitations by designing a business model around trust and connection. They offered free professional photography to hosts, invited customer reviews, and designed a reputation system to bolster trust further. They listened to find out what information guests needed to feel safe, and they assured hosts that Airbnb had their back if something went wrong.

The three cofounders and friends instinctively knew that the measures that mattered the most would be those that encouraged Deep Connection — with each other, their team, their hosts, their guests and local communities. They also realized that these groups are interconnected and play a role in strengthening their business.

Building trust was made easier for Joe, Brian and Nate because their relationship had started with friendship. They were always thinking about what was best for each other and the company, anticipating each other’s needs, and celebrating the combination of their differing perspectives to create better ideas. They wanted to create a culture at the company that mirrored the fundamental trust they believed existed and that they held sacred in their own Deep Connection with one other.

The Airbnb team realized they needed their employees to understand there’s no need to compete with one another; the only person to compete with is yourself. This was an important first step to developing the confidence that your coworkers will have your back. This leads to a safe space of transparency and openness. Hard conversations are embraced and have productive outcomes when people trust in one another’s good Intentions.

This model of connection and communication appeared to work well, and the company grew rapidly. Airbnb’s rumored plans for a public stock offering became one of the most anticipated market debuts of 2020.

Then COVID emerged and travel skidded to a halt. Faced with a barrage of customers wanting to cancel their bookings, Joe, Brian and Nate made the decision to break with company policy and offer full refunds. But they did this without first consulting the network of hundreds of thousands of hosts. 

The hosts felt blindsided, and the founders realized that they had let their community down. For another company, that breach of trust might have been the end of the business. For the three cofounders, it was an opportunity to show humility, to apologize, to reach out and ask for another chance. They had the hard conversations that are possible only when you’ve created a culture of trust and openness. 

From these conversations came a decision to put in place a $250 million fund for their hosts, accompanied by a note of apology from Brian:

While I believe we did the right thing in prioritizing health and safety, I am sorry we communicated this decision to guests without consulting you — like partners should. We have heard from you and we know we could have been better partners.

Joe, Nate, and Brian’s story is a shining example of connection and trust in a world that incentivizes the opposite. Trust, of course, takes a different shape depending on the form of partnership, but in all circumstances, we should try to design our partnerships — whether professional or personal — to default to trust.

Here are some guiding principles:

1. Assume good intentions 

Don’t jump to conclusions about the other person’s actions, going immediately to a place of fear or distrust. Trust grows when you are confident the other person has your back, as well as the collective benefit of the relationship in mind. 

A strong purpose helps embed good intentions in every action. It deepens momentary trust into something enduring and profound. Consistently defaulting to trust takes a leap of faith, which in turn encourages more trust.

2. Create a safe, honest space for trust to grow

This requires time and regular moments that build stability, history and joy. When you make honesty and openness a central priority with your Deep Connections, people won’t hide from difficult conversations.

3. Be transparent and clear 

It’s easier to be honest and open when you design for transparency. Software company Buffer has taken this to extremes. All their compensation packages and diversity data are available online, their open-source code is available to anyone, and they are transparent about their future product map. It has helped them build a much more connected, straightforward community, keeping team members focused on productivity rather than worried about fairness.

A clear operating framework, including clear roles and responsibilities, is fundamental in enabling trust to flourish. It allows people to be heard, make decisions, take risks, be efficient and do extraordinary thinks.

4. Make hard conversations the norm

Don’t be afraid to talk about the tough stuff. At Airbnb, they talk about “elephants, dead fish and vomit.” Here’s what that means: “Elephants” are the big things in the room that nobody is talking about, “dead fish” are the things that happened a few years ago that people can’t get over, and ”‘vomit” is that sometimes people just need to get something off their mind and you need someone to just sit there and listen.

 The idea is to communicate openly, always, so that people are free to express themselves even when what they have to say is hard to hear. The worst thing you can do is disengage, ignoring stressors on yourself and others until the tremors grow into an earthquake that could destroy the relationship.

5. Allow mistakes to build trust 

No matter how carefully you craft a relationship, there are moments when trust can be broken, especially in the early stages, when you and your partner don’t have a sense of shared history to help you understand why someone is doing something that appears hurtful. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for mistakes can go a long way toward building trust.

6. Watch your body language

Rolling your eyes or turning your back when someone is talking to you can be all it takes to undermine trust. Trust was so deeply seeded in Ben and Jerry’s partnership that you could feel it in every word they used, their body language, even their laughter. In the 15 years that I’ve known them, I’ve never seen even a moment when their trust was betrayed by an undermining glance, comment or action.

7. Trust yourself 

Ultimately, building enduring trust with someone else is impossible unless you already have that kind of trust in yourself. Many of the people I spoke with described fundamental questions you can ask yourself to better understand how to become a more trusting partner:

  • Do you trust your intentions and your abilities?
  • What do you need from your partner to help grow self-trust?
  • Are you all-in and coming from a place of trust rather than fear?
  • Is there a clear something bigger driving your life and your partnerships?

“The ability to give without feeling it’s a sacrifice, that the winning is in the giving, is a kind of trust,” says Will Marshall, cofounder of Planet, a satellite company. “A trust in the universe, but also in learning to trust that if you dedicate yourself to a big, audacious goal, you will be your best self and you’ll find a pathway to weave that into your daily work or life.”

As you better understand yourself, you will come to recognize that other people are simply trying to be their best selves, too. That understanding will enable you to collaborate more openly and effectively. 

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