Episode 397: Building Trust: Exceptional Leadership in an Uncertain World with Darryl Stickel, Ph.D.

Episode Summary

In this episode, the extraordinary Darryl Stickel, Ph.D., gives us a masterclass on the secrets of building trust as leaders in our organizations, with our kids at home, and with our significant others. Darryl is an Independent Child and Family Counselor, Government Research Analyst, and Management Consultant with McKinsey & Company, a Global Leader in practical approaches to building trust, and the Author of “Building Trust: Exceptional Leadership in an Uncertain World.”  

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our podcast, listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, on the Becoming Your Best podcast. We have a terrific guest with us today. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on trust with over 20 years of experience. His Ph.D., Building Trust in Hostile Environments, from Duke University, established him as a global leader for governments, businesses, and NGOs on practical approaches to building trust. So before we get started, I’d just like to welcome Darryl Stickel. 

Darryl Stickel: Steve, thanks so much for having me. I’m really happy to be here with you and your listeners. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, Darryl. We’ve had the chance to visit a little bit before. This podcast is going to be terrific. We’re so glad that you could join us today as listeners. We’re privileged to have you here, we love your spirit. I was telling Darryl before we began, the nature of those that listen to the Becoming Your Best podcast are people that just want to do better. They’re people that want to make a difference not only as leaders, but as individuals, and they do have a huge influence. What we’re going to talk about today is a big part of that. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Darryl and then we’ll jump right into our interview. Darryl has worked for McKinsey & Company in their Toronto office. He is a Canadian -whoo hoo– 

Darryl Stickel: Hazaa. 

Steve Shallenberger:  –Yeah, our good neighbors, – as well as advised the Canadian military on trust building in Afghanistan. He has served as faculty for the Luxembourg School of Business and the Center of Effective Organizations at the University of Southern Cal. and recently completed his book Building Trust: Exceptional Leadership in an Uncertain World. It’s never been needed more, Darryl, 

Darryl Stickel: I agree. Trust levels are some of the lowest we’ve ever seen. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’ll say. His contribution to the field of trust has been recognized by his nomination to the Top Thought Leaders on Trust by Trust Across America – Trust Around the World. Let’s just jump into this. Darryl, tell us about your background including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you and especially how you got into what you’re doing today. 

Darryl Stickel: Right. There’s a saying by Kierkegaard that life makes sense in retrospect. It makes sense looking backwards, but we live forwards. I was born and raised in a small community in Northern Canada. The conditions were harsh at times, it was -40 fairly often. We were pretty isolated, and that meant that people had to pull together. You didn’t just drive past your neighbor if they were stuck on the side of the road. There was this sense that if you could help someone you should, and that was very embedded in me from an early age. 

Darryl Stickel: When I was growing up, I knew that I was going to lose my sight. I’m legally blind. Me and my guide dog, Drake, kind of wander the earth trying to make the world a better place. I knew I was losing my sight, and that I would need to be able to train myself to think for a living. I was headed down that path. and then there was a detour that came along. When I was 17, I was playing junior hockey. I was attacked by a fan with a club, shattered my helmet, knocked me unconscious. I was then attacked by a player while I was unconscious. I ended up with a pretty severe concussion, and it was the mid-’80s when we didn’t really know a lot about concussions and head injuries and those kinds of things. All of a sudden here I was, somebody who had planned to live his life thinking for a living not able to think, I had the attention span of a fruit fly. That experience really gave me a sense of what it felt like to be helpless and hopeless, and to feel lost.  

Darryl Stickel: I eventually went to university, I was at the University of Victoria. I’d be sitting on the bus and people would just sit down next to me and say, “I’m really having a hard time.” I wanted to understand what it was that made complete strangers open up to me and talk with me. What was it that made it feel safe to do that? I thought I should probably pursue a field of study or area of interest that aligns with this, that takes advantage of those skills that I seem to have. I also thought if this is going to keep happening, maybe I should get paid for this, so I went into psychology. I was studying to become a clinical psychologist, I worked with families in crisis and troubled teens and worked on crisis lines and all those kinds of things. Steve, I came to realize that a lot of the folks I was working with were just doing the best they could, and that even if you found a path forward for them, they would struggle to take it. I thought, “This is going to drive me insane “ and so ended up shifting and went into public administration doing a master’s degree in public admin. 

Darryl Stickel: I ended up working in Native land claims here in British Columbia. They would ask me these deep philosophical questions like “What is self-government? or “What will the province look like 50 years after claims are settled?” The last question they asked me was, “How do we convince a group of people we shafted for over 100 years they should trust us?” I thought, “Man, that’s a good question.” And so I went to Duke and wrote my doctoral thesis on building trust in hostile environments because I wanted to understand those long-term disputes, why they’re so resilient, why they’re so hard for us to pull apart. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a great background. Thank you. I was just thinking I lost the sight in my left eye eight years ago, so between the two of us, we have one eye. That’s pretty good. 

Darryl Stickel: Nice. Yeah. We’ve got four ears though. 

Steve Shallenberger: Good job, amen. That helps a lot.  

Darryl Stickel: It does. 

Steve Shallenberger: Bless you. That’s an inspiration. We’ve got so many questions about trust and I want to hear about your book. Let’s just start right off the organizational level. I know everything we talk about, particularly in this area, in this arena, can be applied in our personal life and in our relationships, but let’s start at the corporate level. How can CEOs or key leaders of an organization build trust with their teams and organization? 

Darryl Stickel: That’s a great question. Partly you’re getting right to the root of the problem, which is a lack of awareness. We often don’t know who we trust or how much we trust them. When I ask people “Who do you trust?”, they’ll give me these sort of close, tight personal relationships like best friend, spouse, sibling. The reality is, Steve, that we trust people all the time. Go to a restaurant, we get in a cab, we get on an airplane, we trust people constantly. It’s the social lubricant that allows society to function. When I flip that question, and I say, “Who trusts you?” I get this really long pause. Eventually, someone will say, “Well, how would I know? How do I know if someone trusts me or not.”  

Darryl Stickel: What we need to understand is what the definition is for trust, and it’s the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable when we can’t completely predict how someone else is going to behave. There’s elements of uncertainty and vulnerability there. When we’re deciding to trust someone, we ask ourselves two fundamental questions. The first is“How likely am I to be harmed?” which is perceived uncertainty. The second question is “If I’m harmed, how bad is it going to hurt?” which is perceived vulnerability. It’s uncertainty x vulnerability gives us a level of perceived risk. We each have a threshold of risk that we’re comfortable with. If we go beyond that threshold, we don’t trust. If we’re beneath it, then we do. Building trust becomes a simple matter of understanding where does uncertainty come from and how do I take steps to reduce it? Where does vulnerability come from? How do I take steps to manage that for the other person?  

Darryl Stickel: For me, there are 10 different levers that we can pull. I try to go through this in as much detail as possible in the book, I try to make it incredibly accessible and incredibly applied. What I do is I systematically walk people through the 10 levers. In my book, my masterclass, with the courses I teach, we go through these 10 levers and talk about how to pull them because we all have the ability to build trust; some are just better than others. For those who aren’t very good, they have a lever that they pull. Usually, it’s the ability lever. “I have these kinds of credentials, this background, this much experience.” Those who are better at building trust have multiple levers that they pull. Those who are really good have multiple levers, and they know when to pull which one. For senior executives, if they want to build trust with those they lead, they need to start by understanding how do I reduce uncertainty for folks, how do I create clarity? Uncertainty comes from two places. It comes from us as individuals, and it comes from the context that we’re embedded in, the rules of the game. There’s a few places where my research really differentiates itself from most of the other stuff out there. One place is that it includes this notion of context, which allows us to understand why we trust some people without knowing anything about them.  

Steve Shallenberger: You said the social context? Is that what I heard? 

Darryl Stickel:  No, it’s our context. Part of that’s social; part of it’s structural. 

Steve Shallenberger:  Okay, our context…  

Darryl Stickel: If you go to a doctor’s office, and the doctor says, “Take off your clothes,” you do. That tends not to happen in other places, Steve. If we change that example to a bathroom at a gas station, you can have the same two people, same conversation, dressed the same way, and it goes from credible to creepy in a heartbeat. Understanding the role that context plays and how the rules, the formal rules and the informal rules, influence our behavior can really reduce people’s uncertainty.  

Darryl Stickel: For us as individuals, there’s three levers that we talked about. You had mentioned Stephen Covey’s Speed of Trust stuff. This is really where that focus is on, our individual trustworthiness. The three levers that are most often used are benevolence, integrity and ability. Benevolence is that belief that you’ve got my best interest at heart, that you’ll act in my best interest. Integrity is do I follow through on my commitments and do my actions line up with the values that I express? Ability is do I have the competence to do what I say I’m going to do? That’s four of the 10 levers from the model; there’s benevolence, integrity, ability, and context. Each of those is a place that we can lean in to try to reduce uncertainty for somebody else to build trust. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. Well, that’s a good start. In other words, as a leader or CEO, what I can do to have a culture of trust in my team or organization is to understand what are the right levers and appropriately pull and use those levers to build that trust, so people know where they’re going; there’s clarity; they can feel safety and confidence; it’s considerate and allows them to become their best because they know where we’re going and they can engage in it; and realizing that we just don’t assume, because there’s going to be uncertainty in some people’s lives and vulnerability, so you have to give them a clear pathway. Is that what you’re saying? 

Darryl Stickel: That’s exactly what I’m saying. A lot of times when I work with senior executives, we face a couple of challenges, Steve. One is, 95% of people believe they’re more trustworthy than average, which is not only statistically impossible, it’s also damaging. A lot of times when they recognize a trust problem, which we don’t always recognize, but when they do, they assume it’s somebody else’s fault, and so they don’t take ownership, they don’t step in to make changes, they don’t invest time and energy in trying to make things better. 

Darryl Stickel: The other is that I talk about all these levers. If I’m trying to be benevolent to you, and I think I’m benevolent, I hear so many senior leaders say. “Well, I do all those things,” and my response is, “Says who?” For me to think I’m benevolent is one thing, but it’s got to land for you, Steve. If I’m building trust with you, you have to think I’m benevolent. When I work with families, I’ll stand in front of the parents and I’ll say, “How many of you here have your kids’ best interests at heart?” and all the hands go up. When I change the question and I say, “How many of your kids would say that?” it’s about a third and it’s somewhat hesitant. If it’s not obvious in a place where it’s supposed to be obvious, how do we pull that lever effectively as a senior leader or as a spouse or as a colleague? Well, we have to include the other person in that conversation. We have to get a sense from them of what their best interests are, what success looks like for them.  

Darryl Stickel: A lot of times what I’ll do is I’ll give people a template. I’ll say, “I want you to practice this,” because what I found is that a lot of people are talking about trust, but they’re not talking about what to do about it, and so we go right down to basics. I say, “Benevolence is this belief you’ve got my best interests at heart, and it doesn’t always land that way. Here’s the conversation I want you to practice,” and your listeners can practice this with someone. You go to them and you say, “I heard this guy, Darryl, he was talking about trust. He said benevolence is really important. It’s a big word, but basically, it means do I have your best interests, will I look out for you? I think I do that, but it doesn’t always seem to land that way. Have you ever experienced that?” The other person is going to go, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I tried to do something nice for someone and they were annoyed by it or frustrated by it.” For me personally, I tried to help another blind person navigate something and I messed it up terribly, and he finally just looked at me and said, “Stop helping.”  

Darryl Stickel: Now we start to narrow the funnel a bit. We say, “Well, has someone ever really had your back? Have you ever really felt like someone had your best interests at heart? What did they do? What did that look like? How did it feel?” Then we’re priming them. We’re starting to get a sense of, “Okay, yeah, we’re getting hints about what benevolence looks like for them, what matters to them.” Then we’re going to narrow the funnel further and we’re going to say, “What does success look like for you and how do I help you get there? What would it look like if I was benevolent to you?” Now we’ve created an opportunity for transparency because we’ve created a situation where we can refer back and say, “You remember when you told me this is what success looked like for you? This is me trying to help you get there.” 

Steve Shallenberger: Good. Good thoughtful stuff. These are things that build trust. Yeah, you’re right. They create a bond between you and a feeling and an interest, and when you show that level of interest in another person, they will just bust their pick to help you succeed. 

Darryl Stickel: That’s just it. I get people to practice these skills, and they go, “Well, it felt a little awkward, it’s not something that’s right in my wheelhouse just yet, but, man, was the response positive.”  

Because the other person just wants to see you try. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, good. I was just thinking about some of these levers that you’re talking about. We started with the organization, and we can come back to the organization, but let’s shift to our personal lives just for a moment, relationships. Let’s just imagine that maybe there’s a broken relationship or a strained relationship between a couple, and it’s really not working right now. Or maybe they’ve had a broken relationship with a child or somebody else. How can they work their way back?  

Darryl Stickel: One of the more powerful moments for me was when I was teaching MBA students in Luxembourg. I would get them all to apply the model to a relationship as part of their course, as part of the class; that was one of their tasks. One of my students said that he wanted to practice with his five and three-year-old sons. He said, “The relationship’s broken. I’ve been away for most of their lives working. When I’m around them, I don’t know what to do. I’m terrified, I react badly, and I think it’s broken forever.” We started to talk through the different elements of the model. How do I show integrity? How do I show benevolence? How do I show ability? We all have this notion of, “Oh, I know what ability is,” but before we started this podcast, I asked you what excellence was. We have to include the other person in the definition. At the end of three months, his final report was, “Things have changed completely. My kids run to me now, they throw themselves on me. They tell me they love me constantly. They fight over who gets to sit next to me at dinner.” Really, it’s about understanding these different levers that we can pull and including the other person in that conversation, having some empathy for them. One of the challenges, particularly when it comes to kids, is we think about their best interest today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, 10 years down the road. We don’t hold ourselves to that. I don’t do things today that are going to help me 10 years from now. Yet we have this expectation for our kids, and they’re thinking about right now. We have to help them in the moment to be successful, so that we earn the right to talk about later, so that we start to develop that story for them that we have their back. For my kids, I start with a relentlessly positive story about them. 

Darryl Stickel: One of the downsides of writing a doctoral thesis on building trust in hostile environments is you end up in a lot of hostile environments; I frequently get exposed to folks who are struggling to get along. A big part of what I do is I’ll talk to each of them individually and say, “What’s your story?” because we interpret the world through stories. I’ll get each of them to tell me their story separately. Then I bring them together and I say, “Person One, I want you to tell me Person t 

Two’s story. What do you think their story is?” It forces them to think about it and to try to be empathetic, and it allows us to correct misperceptions. We start to put together a shared narrative, a shared story, which reduces the number of miscommunications. Then I’ll reverse it. I’ll say, “Okay, Person Two. Now you tell me what you think Person One’s story is.” It provokes this level of understanding that we may not have otherwise. It provokes us to think about the other person, to have some level of empathy, and understanding. 

Steve Shallenberger: Let’s just go a little deeper, if you don’t mind, Darryl. Let’s take a married couple or partners. How can they build high trust? Whether it’s broken right now or not, or whether it’s already a good relationship, what can they do, the most important things, to build a high trust so that they feel like they’re linked together? 

Darryl Stickel: Trust is a willingness to be vulnerable; one of the things that we’re asking people to do when we’re asking them to trust us is to be vulnerable to us. What we need to do is go first. A lot of times people will ask me, “How do I start?” Well, I get people to lead with their imperfections, to acknowledge that they’re not perfect. Take that first step of “I’m going to be a little bit vulnerable first” because it sends a signal to the other person that it’s okay to be vulnerable back. Then we start with some benevolence. We start by asking, “What does success look like for you? How do I help you get there?”  

Darryl Stickel: I had a student, we were sitting down, we were going around the room. I said, “Give me a relationship that matters to you.” He said, “Well, my girlfriend.” I said, “Great. What matters to your girlfriend? What’s most important to her?” He said, “I think, family.” I said, “Here’s the conversation you’re going to have tonight. You’re going to say to your girlfriend, ‘I was in class, my professor asked me about a relationship that mattered to me, and I said, you. I thought about you.’” That’s step one; we’re showing the other person we’re thinking about them. I said. “Then you’re going to say to her, ‘He asked me what mattered most to you, and I said family. Is that right?’ Now you’re giving her the opportunity to agree or disagree. You’re inviting her into the conversation, getting her feedback. When she says, yes, you’re going to say, ‘Then I think it probably really matters to you, that I get along well with your family,’ testing a hypothesis, checking in, giving her a chance to disagree again. When she says, ‘Yeah, that would really be great.’ Then you say to her, I’m going to start spending more time with your family, I’m going to have more conversations with them, I’m going to go for lunches with them and coffees with them. I’m going to try to build a stronger relationship with your family, because it matters to you.’Now we’re transparent.” The next day he came back, he had this huge grin on his face. He said, “That went really well,” and he said, “My girlfriend says I’m allowed to talk to you whenever I want. What’s next?” That’s how we start. We make ourselves a little bit vulnerable. We find a way to be benevolent to show the caring and concern we have to make sure it lands, and include that other person in the conversation. 

Steve Shallenberger: Good answer. Okay. I like that, it’s a good starting point. I think it opens the gates where people can start connecting and building together. Regardless of where they’re at, it takes the courage to do it because sometimes people kind of start building walls. Somebody’s got to start it, somebody needs to do the right things. 

Darryl Stickel: Well, I was working with a couple and one of the partners said – the other one just kept bringing up this mistake that they’d made 10 years ago. I looked at the other partner and I said, “Do you lay awake sometimes at night giving thanks to God that that person made that mistake, so that you can continue to beat them up with it, hold it over their head, use it in every argument that ever comes along?” They went, “Well, no.” I said, “Okay, because what that message sends is ‘I can’t make mistakes. I have to be perfect. I can’t even acknowledge that I’ve made a mistake or share with you that I’m flawed because you won’t accept me.” That’s the hole that leaders find themselves in. That’s the hole that couples find themselves in. We need to give each other a bit of grace, Steve. As one of the most flawed human beings on the planet, I’m a strong advocate for people giving each other a little bit of space and grace to be imperfect.

Darryl Stickel: Every time we try something new, Steve, we’re not going to be great at it. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to fail to thrive in the first steps, and we need to be able to make mistakes. For a lot of my leaders, I say to them, here’s what I want you to say to those you lead. “What made me a good leader 10 years ago is not the same thing that makes me a good leader today, and I’m going to learn and grow and develop. What makes me a great leader three years from now is going to be different, and I’m going to have to try new things and explore and accept new responsibilities. I will stumble. I may fall. When I do, my expectation is that you’ll be there, helping me get back up, dusting me off, helping me learn from the mistakes that I will make, because that’s exactly what I’m going to do for you.” 

Steve Shallenberger: I cannot tell you how beyond stunned I am that we are at the end of our podcast. This has gone so fast. Oh, my goodness. Let’s wrap up with this today, Darryl. Thank you for our discussion that we’re having. It’s been terrific, I’ve loved it. What are some final tips that you can provide to our listeners that are most important regarding trust? 

Darryl Stickel:  Become more aware. Trust is a skill that we can all get better at. Building trust is a skill, and it’s a thing that allows you to take control of your life. It’s one of the things that differentiates leaders from being merely acceptable to truly exceptional. It’s a place where we can invest time and energy. The relationships in your life are worth investing in. I’m not trying to flog product, but buy the book. One of the things that’s really powerful is a shared vocabulary, so buy the book for yourself and someone that you care about that you want to have a conversation about trust, about how we build stronger relationships together. It will give you not only a shared vocabulary and a shared model and structure to think through, but there’s applied segments in there that will show you how to ask questions, how to pull these different levers. There’s the book, there’s the masterclass, they can go to my website, In the ‘About’ section, you can see my guide dog, Drake. He’s the Director of Goodness for my company, the DOG. If you have questions for me, just reach out. It’s 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Well, it’s been fun, I’ve loved it. I want to be sure that everybody knows how to reach you. So one more time, the best way to reach you? 

Darryl Stickel: D-A-R-R-Y-L 

Steve Shallenberger:  Perfect. Well, it’s been a delight to have you on the show today, Darryl. Thank you for your thoughts, for the work that you’re doing. I know we’ve scratched the surface, but what we have talked about are some really actionable things that you and I can do, so it’s been worthwhile today. I wish you the best and, and all that you’re doing going forward. That’s awesome. 

Darryl Stickel: Thank you so much, Steve, and thanks to all your listeners for tuning in. 

Steve Shallenberger:  Yeah, you bet. Well, this is Steve Shallenberger thanking you for joining us today and wishing you a great day. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Darryl Stickel, Ph.D.

Founder and Associate at Trust Unlimited

Author, Child and Family Counsellor, Management Consultant 

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