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The recent success of the People’s Climate March is a powerful example of what’s possible when different parts of the progressive movement coordinate. Over 300,000 people from all walks of life marched to demand action on climate change.

Many have commented on the unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination among big green and climate justice groups that resulted in this historic movement moment. Underlying this success is the courage and hard work of the organizers, who forged relationships and built trust across traditional divides.

LIO hug trust

There are a growing number of examples of unusual allies working in greater collaboration and alignment across progressive movements. Examples include environmental and LGBTQ groups stepping forward to support immigration reform, the NAACP’s support of same-sex marriage, innovative reproductive justice organizing, Moral Monday’s ‘Fusion Coalition’, and a broad range of groups throwing down together on democracy initiatives that impact all progressives.

Trust is a key ingredient of effective collaborations. When people trust each other they’re more likely to take risks together, see greater opportunities, and respond to change in smart and coordinated ways. Leaders who trust each other are more willing to dig into disagreements, challenge their assumptions and orthodoxies and have the kind of courageous conversations that can lead to breakthroughs.

With trust we more easily forgive each other for the bumps in the road that inevitably arise when working together. And as we’ve all experienced, a lack of trust brings progress grinding to a halt and makes collaboration incredibly frustrating and inefficient.

This is what Stephen M. R. Covey meant when he coined the term “speed of trust.” His work helps define what trust is in a professional context, and why it’s so important. For example, trust isn’t just about integrity, it’s also about performance.

Trust is a function of both character and competence. Of course you can’t trust someone who lacks integrity, but hear this: if someone is honest but they can’t perform, you’re not going to trust them either. You won’t trust them to get the job done.
Stephen M. R. Covey

For trust to really work its magic, you need to be able to trust someone’s character, motivation, reliability, and competence. That’s true among individuals, and also among organizations.

When speaking about National People’s Action’s approach to building long-term alignment with other organizations, George Goehl has said, “to go long we must go deep.”

“The depth of the partnership allowed us to move through periods when our organizations had disagreements and come out stronger on the other end. This was possible because so many people had invested time in building something that would outlast any one campaign.”
— George Goehl

Before explaining some of the ways we build trust among social change leaders, it’s important to state that STP partners with leaders who believe that building long-term alignment with each other is a strategic imperative. That sense of shared purpose is critical for building trust, as is consent.

This style of working is not for everyone, and it may not be the right strategic choice in every situation. And to be clear, trust is not the end goal — it is a powerful force that can bring shared goals within reach.

Building trust is not a one size fits all process, but here are a few ways that we intentionally cultivate trust in our work. We use these strategies in cross-movement convenings of social change leaders, but similar practices and principles could be put to use within teams and coalitions, by organizational development consultants, or in any kind of working group.

Set the tone
We often begin meetings with an opening circle that sets the tone. This could include asking people to share a recent success, a current challenge, or something that brings them joy. We focus the topic and give each person a specified amount of time to share.

We work to normalize both successes and failures and invite leaders to share something precious from their life with the group. This kind of activity invites vulnerability, a key element to building trust, and establishes the kind of authenticity we ask of each other. It also brings the human being into the room – not just the “human doing” who often shows up instead.

We’ll spend the first part of a meeting in a circle listening to each other. These sessions are often incredibly moving and create a strong foundation for the rest of the meeting. It takes time, but that investment pays off over the course of your work together.

Help people help each other
One of the most effective ways to deepen trust is to examine challenges and solve problems in a group setting.

Ask people to consider a challenge they would like help with, and then workshop these together so that each individual receives advice and guidance from others who are walking similar paths.

This not only advances the work but it creates an informal support network that leaders — who often feel isolated — sorely need. It rewards vulnerability and normalizes failure, which can embolden people to take risks and experiment in the future.

Walk the talk
We can’t demand trust, or expect it without earning it. Trust is earned through the integrity of our actions, by doing what we say, and by taking care to not perpetuate or cause harm.

Many coalitions lose momentum and power when trust is lost because individuals or organizations make commitments but don’t keep them. Simple but essential tools like DARCI can help you establish clear accountability in teams, organizations, and collaborations.

Issues of race, gender, sexual identity, class, issues of power and privilege, differences of strategy, resource allocation, and competition all underlie how we show up together, and they have the potential to undermine trust when people feel slighted, misunderstood, triggered, etc.

It’s critical that we learn and practice effective ways to courageously address issues before and after they arise. Letting disagreements brew under the surface drains us of our collective power, but facing them skillfully with compassion and clarity can be an opportunity to build trust.

It’s our experience that strong relationships fortified by trust enable people to work together more effectively and realize greater impact with less effort. We’d love to hear about your experience. What role does trust play in your work, and how do you develop it?