In my last post, I wrote that the highest level of partner relationships is that of trusted advisor. In this post, I’d like to break down some of the terms and frames of reference related to the trusted advisor role. I’m sure you have your own views on these issues and I hope you’ll share them with us.

First, I’ll offer a definition that works for me: Trust is an aspect of a relationship that is earned and based on the belief that someone can be relied on to live up to expectations.

Let’s examine some of the key aspects of this definition a bit closer.

What, Exactly, Is Trust?

When we trust someone, it means we have a relatively high, but not perfect, assurance that he or she will meet our expectations. Trust is stronger than hope (which describes our wish that what we expect someone to do will actually happen) but weaker than certainty (which implies that what we anticipate will completely and consistently match what happens, and that there is absolutely no possibility the desired behavior will not occur).

I believe these distinctions are important. Sometimes, people use the word trust when they really mean certainty; at other times, trust is mistakenly used when there is no more than hope that someone will do what is desired.

To trust someone means we believe that the likelihood is extremely good of a person delivering on what he or she said. At the same time, we recognize some possibility (even if it’s very small) that, because of the inevitable fallibility of human beings, the expectations may not always be fulfilled as anticipated. The key differentiator is the level of assuredness that exists.

With this level of confidence in someone, it is easier to open yourself up. A trusting relationship with a change practitioner is one that provides a solid foundation on which sponsors can take risks, examine vulnerabilities and previously unquestioned assumptions, allow tough feedback, explore unfamiliar territory, etc.

Trust Doesn’t Happen Without Relationship

Trust exists within the context of a relationship. We trust someone based not just on the outcomes that person delivers, but also on an understanding of the person, the nature of the affiliation between us, and the circumstances surrounding the relationship. It is not primarily about “liking” the other person (although this often is the case) but rather about dependability—the belief that he or she will be there when needed and will deliver what was promised.

Trust Must Be Earned

Trusting someone means the person extending trust has confidence that the other person will live up to the understandings that have been established in the relationship. When we consistently deliver on or exceed what is expected, including stated, implied, or assumed commitments, we are thought of as dependable and therefore usually trustworthy.

It’s important to note that a sponsor who extends trust assumes particular outcomes will happen based on an assessment of the relationship with the practitioner as it appears from his or her frame of reference. Becoming convinced of someone’s trustworthiness is as much a function of perception as it is reality. This means that trust can be gained or lost based as much on subjective elements of the relationship as on verifiable fulfillment of requirements.

Generally speaking, before a sponsor can extend trust, the practitioner must first grant it to himself or herself. We must have the self-confidence to believe that most of the time we will guide the sponsor in the right direction. Only then can we expect the sponsor to reciprocate by extending trust.

The Advisor, The Guide

As used here, an advisor is a guide who supports another person’s journey—one who can confirm the conspicuous routes as well as reveal the unseen paths. An advisor is a Sherpa experienced in not only the terrain but also the challenges, risks, and resources needed during the passage.

The key to moving up the continuum of influence with a sponsor is the credibility to be influential even when evidence or his or her biases don’t support the interpretations and/or recommendations being offered. Typically, those considered SMEs, valued sources, or influential resources are persuasive to increasing degrees, but each reaches a level at which his or her counsel must be corroborated through other means before it is accepted. A trusted advisor, on the other hand, carries such weight that his or her judgment is given serious consideration regardless of how outlandish it might first sound or what other evidence is offered to the contrary.

Earn the Right to Be Influential

From my perspective, then, the trusted advisor is a practitioner who has earned the right to be exceptionally influential when helping a sponsor develop the understanding, commitment, and alignment needed to fulfill his or her role in the change process.

In my next post, I’ll share some key aspects of the trusted advisor relationship in more detail. What about you? Have you been able to achieve a level of trustworthiness with your sponsor? If not, what is hindering the relationship?

Next: How Much Is a Trusted Advisor Worth?

Go to the beginning of this series.