The complex exploration of building trust

In a post on October 4 on “Long established legacies of intimidation,” I used the term “architect of trust.”  I had seen it in a clipping I read in 1998 and saved in a file on organizational cultures.  This morning I Googled the term “architect of trust” and came up with some hits.  Adding in the term “government” along with “architect of trust” produced very few hits, none addressing issues about which I’ve been thinking in recent months.

Why was I on Google when I had a book to read–John Kotter’s Leading Change, which I bought and started reading at the end of the week?  I’ve been thinking about the eight errors in change initiatives Kotter lists in the opening of the book.  And why reading them led me to say, “yes, I see why you say that, but what about….?”  I don’t thnk I’ll blog my reading incrementally, I’ll wait until I’ve finished reading the book to share my reactions to it.

My last post (“Safety and Shelter”) looked at issues of trust.  I described how I was reluctant to start a blog but did so in 2010.  Did so twice as it turns out, first anonymously at Archives Matter(s) in April, then in December at Nixonara.  The reasons why I started Nixonara in 2010 are complex.   I only have revealed in some of my past posts the one part I then thought was safe to explain to my readers.  As in all communications, trust was a factor in what I wrote about my decision to start blogging.

In 2010, when I expressed some concern about my then just begun plunge into blogging, Kate Theimer tweeted to me a link to a librarian’s blog.  Bobbi Newman offered “The Four Most Valuable Lessons I learned in 2010” at Librarian by Day.  I bookmarked the link Kate tweeted to me and have re-read it from time to time.   She talks about disagreement, about conflict, about hateration.  But what really stays with me is what she says about humanity.

Some of my readers have told me over the years that I’m very open about issues they would feel uncomfortable exploring.  Part of Newman’s advice is “to admit you’re human.”  But how I chose to write here in the past goes beyond that.  I’ve been thinking about that and what to do in the future in recent days.  I don’t have an answer, yet.

I felt incredibly dehumanized by what had happened to my archival cohort — the federal archivists who first did disclosure review on Richard Nixon’s White House tapes –over 20 years ago.  To understand that you and your boss and colleagues were “in the way” of outcomes someone more powerful than you needed and wanted provided me searing lessons in vulnerability.  I would be interested in people issues, communications, management, leadership, and trust even without those experiences.  But they definitely form the basis for my exploring the themes I do at Nixonara.  As regular readers know, I often refer to  management as “having people in your care.”

Yesterday, I re-read “The Shaping of a Life (‘I Believe’),” the double blog-posted essay from April 2011 in which I revealed I was the anonymous author of Archivesmatter(s).  I remembered that I had written, “What’s the best protection? A moral compass. But oh, God, too often so, so hard to find  in Washington.”  And quoted lyrics from “I Believe,” a song by one of my favorite 1980s bands, one I listened to often then.  But I had forgotten how much distrust of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) I expressed in the post.  That shows how I am in a very different place now.

Less than two weeks after I wrote that post, I began rebuilding trust in my former employing agency.  The Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, was and is responsible for that.    As I noted on May 12, 2011 at my blog:

“Ferriero must have seen that I’m a wounded, previously abused person — but not a crippled or cynical one.  I’m like a shelter dog who has been beaten and mistreated but still wags his or her tail and shows joy at any sign of human kindness because s/he just refuses to give up on us human beings. . . . Because my core self is what it is, something immutable, in its good and its bad qualities.  Anyone who served in the Navy during the Vietnam war and learned the right life lessons from that and later experiences, as Ferriero apparently has, would be able to distinguish between the hopeless and the rescues.  Glad the Big Dude saw me as a rescue.  Not everyone has, I often thought my cohort just was seen as collateral damage by some in the government.  Indeed, I would say such perception is very un-Washington, which is what makes the Big Dude my kind of guy now.”

What Ferriero did in reaching out and enabling me to reconnect with the National Archives was an example of high impact action.  It began my effort to regain trust in NARA.  Some of that process has involved getting to know David in person, some reading what he says.  I especially liked the fact that he wrote about a speech by then outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

I’ve blogged about Gates’s speech myself, several times, actually.  In  “Use Your Authority Over Others Constructively,” I focused on a passage that David didn’t quote in hs blog post about Gates.  (Ferriero writes more concisely than I, smile.  He knows how to convey a lot in just a few words!).  When I read the text of Gates’s speech at the Naval Academy, I was struck most of all by this piece of advice:

“The qualities of leadership I have described this morning do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities.  These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you have made here at the Academy and will make early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service.”

This to me is one of the most important elements not just in leadership but in trust building.  You can’t build trust by fiat.  You can’t do it by endorsement.  You can’t do it by press release or self promotion.  It starts with the earliest exposure people have to you, well before you realize what you may encounter or need later from anyone.  The key lies in how you start.  If you don’t get the foundation right, the color of paint chosen for the exterior trim won’t matter.

In some of my early blog posts, I looked at cultural clashes among other elements that affect communications and understanding.  In “The Hunt for Red October (‘All Back Full’),” I described how I made a breakthrough in 2008 with then Nixon Foundation director John H. Taylor at The New Nixon blog.  That was one of the hardest choices I’ve made in recent years because of what might have happened if it didn’twork.  It frightened me to post a comment under a blog post by Taylor, someone who once had called my archival cohort “Hardy Boys” and “junior prosecutors.”  And who had served as a chief of staff to Richard Nixon in retirement.  But something told me to go ahead and try.

I decided to post a comment based on my take on Taylor’s blogging vibe in 2008. Setting aside what he had said in earlier times, I studied his writing to see if there were signs of development.  I look for embrace of continual learning in people.  I saw that in Taylor both in how he wrote his blog posts and how he interacted with those who raised questions or praised or criticized what he had to say.

I took the measure of the man at his blog and I posted.  How he replied was pitch perfect and told me I had made the right choice in throwing away caution and trusting I could get away with what I did.  I was amazed when he later explained his reaction to me.  (He gave me permission in 2011 to share that in the “all back full” post to which I linked above.)  It was an astonishing example of using Web 2.0 to overcome old barriers.

The New Nixon changed when Taylor left after January 2009 to become a full-time Episcopal priest.  The other bloggers did not engage with readers much.  One deleted comments initially allowed through the moderation queue.  Eventually, the blog stopped taking comments.

I already had stopped being a regular reader.  The mix of political rhetoric and posts about Nixon history did not work for me.   The balance actually improved over time–not necessarily due to my urging, there’s no way to show cause and effect.  I stopped offering advice–I decided that I wasn’t the person most likely to influence Nixon Foundation officials.

I noted the changes that occurred in 2011 and 2012 as I looked in on the Nixon Foundation’s blog from time to time.  But what was done was done, by then.

And I understood there were cultural differences of the type I mentioned in one of my earliest blog posts here, “Let’s Start with Some Nixonara Myth Busting.”

My outreach to John H. Taylor led to outreach to and by David Ferriero.  In 2010, I posted about having a “spark of hope” under a post Ferriero wrote about “Leading an Open Archives.”  I very much liked what he quoted from Charlene Li about embracing negative as well as positive feedback.  I find so much of what is done in Washington and how it is done dispiriting.  Ferriero’s post truly was a breath of fresh air for me in September 2010.

The comment I posted at AOTUS blog on “Leading an Open Archives” referred to a message I had posted on the Archives & Archivists Listserv earlier in September 2010.

David Ferriero ended up sending me a message via the Lyris Manager for the Listserv on September 26, 2010.  I included it (not for the first time) in my last blog post on “Safety and Shelter.”

As an aside, I had to unsubscribe Friday night from the Listserv.  I needed to change the subscription from my primary email account, which I’ve tried to keep private, to my public account.  I couldn’t do so for technical reasons.  So I remain unsubscribed.

Ferriero has mentioned John Kotter as an authority on leading change efforts.  But I just wrote above that while some of what Kotter writes resonates for me as I read Leading Change, I’m left hungry, still.  I haven’t gotten far enough in the book to know how he writes about trust.  But I stepped out for an intellectual–well, more a psychological–snack!  That’s why I ended up Googling “architect of trust” today.

I trust the Big Dude, he has great capacity.  And much credibility with me.  Yeah, I see Ferriero as sui generis. David and I don’t always see things the same way.  But I absolutely believe I can see some issues differently while agreeing with him on others.  That’s why I wrote at the end of “Safety and Shelter” that I write about the agency Ferriero leads “from an uncommon place, caring about NARA but doing so with confidence, trust, even serenity.

So what caught my eye in Googling for a snack today?  I found a presentation called “Architects of Trust:  Building Trust in the Workplace.”  Some wise observations there on types of trust, why trust erodes, how change affects trust, and how to work towards solutions.  I applauded this admission:  “Organizational change entails a risk of generating real or perceived misalignment between a manager’s words and deeds.”  Authenticity is so important but harder to build up–no, actually harder to display because safe zones are so few–in the Washington environment than elsewhere.

And I loved, loved, loved this passage:  “Resistance is normal and healthy–listen.  Don’t ignore the signs–it won’t go away.”

Because I’m so jaded and attuned to Washingtonian baloney, I especially liked this part:  “easier to spend two days learning new project management software, or two weeks adopting a new strategic thinking model than to undertake the complex exploration of building trust and connection with other human beings.”  Mind you, some of the baloney comes from having to jump through hoops; change agents don’t have complete free agency in the federal environment!

There’s advice in the presentation on rebuilding trust once it is lost.  That is incredibly difficult to do for individuals and organizations, both.

And a section on “Trust Building Actions” that focuses on Communication:

Solve problems through direct communication.  Be explicit.  If compromise is productive, do it in communication, not in your mind alone

Ask non-assumptive questions. Inquiry not advocacy.

Practice deep listening – suspend judgement

Look for the positive – acknowledge the intent first

Validate success or new effort. Share credit generously.

Many of these issues are ones I used to discuss with my late sister, a supervisory archivist and team leader at NARA.  More and more I think David Ferriero is right.  Leadership can only be taught to a certain extent.  But you can recognize pretty quickly who has the potential and internal capacity and who does not.

Leading change.  I’ll be writing about that more after I finish reading Kotter’s book.  Ferriero’s vision isn’t diminished by the fact that I started reading a book he has pointed to in public.  And that I set it aside briefly early in to it and then went off-road to forage for more food.

It isn’t April 2011 any more.  And when I say “I believe,” it no longer refers to an angst filled song about pain.  I smile at some of that angst and distrust now, I’m so glad David reached out in May 2011 and I started recalibrating how I view NARA.  I listened to the song again yesterday.  My favorite version is the “soulful” second version, which concludes with the words, “It’s too late now, baby, yeah.”

I never think about taking down some of my early posts here, when I was so uncertain about NARA.  Or even the ones where I made mistaken assumptions which later posts corrected or realigned.

That does not mean I’m certain NARA is in the right place on everything now.  As the presentation on Architects of Trust notes, “Complex organizations make it hard to deliver consistent service and conduct.”   I believe that such complexity is not just structural.  Some of the challenges stem from internal and external elements and stakeholders, both.  And (rarely admitted in Washington), the lack of safe haven to discuss them honestly and realistically.

Would that wise and insightful panelists of the type who work on the Public Interest Declassification Board could tackle some other issues!   So many issues have fear at their core.  So can discussion of them.  When there is no safe zone to talk, solution seeking becomes limited.  If there was a trust moment in the report the PIDB issued last year, it was when I read the part on safe harbor.  To me, that is an essential element necessary if we are to resolve difficult problems.

When my friend, the late Earl “Mac” McDonald, took this photo of Ferriero speaking at NARA last December, I was tweeting the Big Dude’s remarks from my seat on the aisle.  I often think about this passage by Caryle that David quoted in his remarks at the PIDB meeting:  “Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragement, and impossibilities: It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.”

2012120613 NARA photo PIDB meeting 120612

I never assume I know everything about actions NARA is taking although I’m looped in on many issues.  My blog only reflects some of my interests in Fedland.  There are issues I choose not to discuss at my blog.  Some I’m still thinking over.  Others I simply am watching.  Some I just am not ready to write about yet.  These things change, I’m constantly recalibrating how I approach my blogging.

But delete any of my old posts?  Why would I?  Blogging is a chronicle of life, of pain, fear, joy and the building of trust.  And life is an adventure, isn’t it?

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