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Cultivating Trust in Housing

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Trust is difficult to talk about in our personal or professional relationships. It’s vulnerable.

When I first joined SCS to help co-lead Co:Here, I remember one of my first dust ups was with a few applicants who questioned our application design. I remember them telling me that they didn’t trust our process because they didn’t understand it. I was so hurt. Rather than spend my time explaining the process carefully and clearly, my first reaction was a bruised ego and defensiveness. Facepalm. It’s embarrassing now, but at the time their distrust felt like a massive personal insult. It felt impossible to think repair would be possible when trust is broken.

One of the lessons at SCS has been that for communities of trust to develop, there needs to be intentionality and deliberate action of trust-building activities. And I’m not talking about trust falls or blindfold walks. I’m talking about small, repeated, culture-creating acts of trust building in our everyday operations. Examples like:

  • Checking in with people about their comfort-level and then respecting their boundaries

  • Doing what you said you were going to do, following through on your commitments (ie. a repair or communication)

  • Apologizing when our words or actions don’t come out the way we intend them to

Brené Brown talks about the marble jar as a metaphor for trust earning. Picture a child's classroom and when the teacher notices good behaviour from the students, she puts a marble in the jar. When the jar is full of marbles, the students celebrate with a party or special activity.

Earning trust from one another and ourselves is like marbles in a jar; every small act that communicates caring trust is a marble that gets placed in the jar. Over time, people in our life who have earned our trust are the people we can depend on when life erupts or a crisis occurs.

As housing operators, we need to identify opportunities to put marbles into our tenants' jars. That is our work. Brené Brown uses the acronym “BRAVING” to define trust. Here’s a quick riff on how this clever acronym could play out in the housing space:

B oundaries: Being clear about what’s okay and what’s not. If you’re unsure of someone’s comfort-level or boundary, ask them about it and don’t presume. Are you willing to gently ask someone to step back if they are standing too close to you?

R eliability: Doing what we said we are going to do. And if it doesn’t happen for some reason, rather than ignore it, communicate through it. One way we can demonstrate reliability is responding to tenant inquiries or calls in a timely manner.

A ccountability: When we make a mistake we apologize. Does your organization have a culture of naming harm or apologizing? Are there feedback loops that test accountability (i.e., incident reporting)?

V ault: You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. Period. How staff talk about tenants when they’re not there matters.

I ntegrity: Choosing courage over comfort. Do staff practice organizational values rather than simply profess them? Your organization says that tenants' opinions matter - but have you asked them what activities they’d like to do?

N on-Judgement: We can ask each other for help without judgment. Can you ask tenants for what you need without leading with power (i.e., “I’m within my rights”). Can tenants or colleagues ask you for help without feeling judged?

G enerosity: You extend the most generous interpretation possible to another persons’ intentions, words and actions. Do you hold bias toward a tenant that makes it difficult to extend generous interpretations of their actions? Is there someone on the team that has a different relationship with that person that you can learn from?

Over the years I’m not sure I’ve always noticed when trust is present. But I definitely notice when it’s not. Walking into an environment where people don’t trust each other is awkward. In Emergent Strategy, author Adrienne Maree Brown has a lot to say about trust. Two main principles are if you trust the people, they become trustworthy and move at the speed of trust.

As housing operators it is far too easy to distrust people and act quickly. Our systems are built to protect assets and mitigate risk efficiently. They are not built to slowly strengthen our interconnectedness (relationships). When we actively engage in trust-building endeavors we can add marbles in the jars of our tenants and maybe even receive a few in our jars too.

How do you cultivate trust? I’d love to hear from you.

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