One of my clients, a well-placed COO, once engaged me in a rather unique conversation about trust. "It takes me about six months to figure out if I can trust someone," he said. "Is there a faster way to make a decision than that?" That's an issue plenty of managers think about when they're giving consideration to work relationships, but I've never had an exec put the question to me so baldly.
The issue is more basic than work performance or ability. Having trustworthy people around makes work life much easier and much less stressful. In defining his question, the COO said, he really got "bugged" by people who were more focused on their career than on the firm's business and he wanted to know how he could identify those people faster. Although he had a long history with a number of his peers, the firm had recently been bought out by a major corporation and there were several new execs "floating around." He wasn't certain whether some of them could be trusted.
How you tell the good guys from the bad guys is not just a problem for execs. It's a question that we're all faced with periodically. My client and I talked about a number of conversational clues, but he was especially intrigued by my coaching on nonverbal clues.
So, how do you quickly size a person up by nonverbal clues?
Nonverbal smarts can pay off with a problem like the COO was facing. For example, watch how others respond to the person in a team meeting. When you're friends with some of the team members, look to see whether they are cautious, giving only a minimum amount of information in front of him? Do they smile when responding, or are they more cautious?
Get to the meeting early, and watch where other people sit around "the guy." If several people keep their distance, that may mean they also distrust the guy.
Watch "the guy" in a social situation where people tend to more inhibited. Do people naturally come up to him, or do they keep their distance from him even in an exchange?
Assess the personal space between him and others. In a conversation, do people take a few extra inches? When people aren't certain about someone, they'll depart from their usual personal distance between themselves and others. You can readily spot the differences in a social gathering. Although most managers will work a room, saying hello to all of their colleagues, they'll keep more space between themsevelves and those they don't trust.
Watch to see which people get in close to "the guy." What do you know about those people that might give you more insight?
Last, be very careful about drawing conclusions from just one or two situations. Observe the person in four or five settings before you decide whether he's a good guy or a bad guy. If you decide the guy is a bad guy, and he has a lot of power, you have some decisions to make. Most execs have learned how to work with bad guys, but it takes a lot of energy. If there's a lot on the line and he's your boss, you may want to tough it out. If there's not a lot on the line, it may be time to transfer or look for the exit.
FYI: At least 50% of the time, nonverbal messages are wrongly interpreted. The same nonverbal expression (such as a smile, crossed arms or inconsistent personal distance) can be indicative of several widely differing emotions and meanings. The rule: nonverbal messages should always be read in context. The same nonverbal may mean one thing in one context and something else in another. When it's important, you may want to check out the meaning of the nonverbal with the other person.
Knowing how to listen with your eyes is just as important as listening with your ears.
P.S. Here's the initial post on this subject.