Building Relationships of Trust

Part 2 of 6 Part Series on Effective Knowledge Transfer: Building Relationships of Trust

The Civil Engineer – January 2012

Plato said that Knowledge was “Justified True Belief” – in other words, in order to “know”, one simply has to believe that something is real and be able to justify it with sufficient conviction, in order for it to be so.

This human ability to “create” knowledge, based simply on a strong belief and an equally strong reason for that belief to be real, has been at the centre of the “science versus faith” debate since the earliest philosophers and astronomers began to question the status quo at their time and were more often than not, brutally persecuted and even put to death for having the audacity to question indoctrinated beliefs.

If we fast forward several thousand years to 2012, the “science versus faith” debate rages on, as experts at both ends of the spectrum continue to make spectacular discoveries, or claims, which completely overturn and nullify everything we took to be indisputable, de facto “justified true belief” only 10 to 15 years ago. The most recent “game changing” discovery that neutrinos traverse the universe at speeds in excess of the Speed of Light has shattered the 100 year absolute of this being a constant (c) and has opened a massive debate around the most cherished hypothesis in relativistic physics.

And so, as the simple harmonic dance of convergence and divergence amongst these experts continues through the millennia, we find ourselves in a similarly elastic quandary, or impasse, when it comes to effectively managing and transferring Knowledge in the engineering world, whether in the consulting or contracting environments – the challenge is very similar to the historical one above – do we continue to transfer “more of the same” to the next generation (it is after all, justifiable true belief, as it has worked for us for so long and must therefore, by implication, be the only way !) – or, do we engage in developing a “co-visioneered” version of the future, using experience and past success as a respected benchmark only and not an absolute destination and allowing a process of “engaged discovery” to unfold, to the benefit and sustainable advantage of all participants and their organisations.

This latter option is the domain of effective Knowledge Transfer, through relationships forged in an earned trust and a common vision of the “knowledge objectives” of the relationship.

As we have observed above, we are often just as likely to pass on mediocre knowledge and bad habits, as we are to pass on the nuggets of wisdom that create true sustainable value – just as long as we can justify our belief in the particular practice.

So, if effective Knowledge Transfer involves a sharing relationship, which is based on a high degree of TRUST, and as trust is a bond, or covenant, which must usually be earned over time through consistency, commitment and action, how do we fast-track this essential ingredient into our organisations, in order to ensure the optimal sharing and transfer of sound engineering judgement and essential technical expertise, garnered over many years and at great cost, to the future generation of engineers and leaders in our profession?

There is a way…Structured Mentoring.

Structured Mentoring involves a harmonious inter-dependency between People, Process and Program, focused on achieving specific job function, career or specialist knowledge objectives or learning outcomes of the potential Mentee.

So the starting point is agreeing the knowledge objectives of the Structured Mentoring programme – this will be covered more comprehensively in a future article, as this Part 2 article is focused on “Building Relationships of Trust”.

Once the direction and objectives of the knowledge transfer are agreed, the second focus area (and arguably the No. 1 critical success factor) is the Relationship Building process. Bearing in mind that this is a work related initiative and that with “billable hours” being consistently crowbarred into our subconscious thought processes, how do we ensure that we are able to spend enough time and effective effort to nurture the critical element of Trust, in order to get the knowledge to flow?

One way is to use the following relatively simple Relationship Building technique which has proven to be very effective over many years:

  • COMMITMENT – ensure that both potential Mentors and Mentees are fully committed to participating in the process of knowledge transfer and the overall learning objectives of the programme – commitment helps overcome all the obstacles that may get in the way from time to time. The partnership should develop a clear “route map” of what they want to achieve and how they plan to go about it – clarity builds commitment and there are proven ways to assess and motivate participant commitment before any investment is made.
  • OPENNESS – the Mentors and Mentees should engage in a process of discussing their mutual expectations, of not only the outcome of the process, but of each other as well. Potential obstacles such as generational differences in behavioural competencies such time management and accountability, or differences in cultural values and norms or even lofty expectations of rapid entitlement, should be openly discussed and dealt with to the mutual satisfaction of both parties – as the saying goes “don’t pass Go” until the mutual expectations or agendas of both participants are thoroughly discussed and agreed.
  • HONESTY – as with our private and personal relationships, Honesty is an essential ingredient of building a Trust relationship. The Mentors and Mentees should ensure that they are paired with someone with whom they are comfortable and prepared to be completely honest – effective Structured Mentoring will involve a lot more than discussing the “square root of minus 1” and should therefore allow both the Mentors and Mentees the space to discuss their feelings, fears and futures with absolute honesty – if these are shrouded in hierarchical or positional uncertainty, fabricated ideals or smoke screens, the relationship cannot deal with the “truth” and will therefore be less productive.
  • MUTUAL RESPECT – in a multi-cultural society, spanning several generational epochs, it is to highly likely that the pairing of Mentors and Mentees will be fraught with potential obstacles, relating to mutual respect and understanding. The use of scientifically validated and diversity friendly self-assessment instruments, add huge value to this component of the relationship building process. Mutually shared insights gained from a Behavioural Style Analysis, or a Workplace Motivators Report or an Emotional Intelligence Assessment provide a wonderful platform to have open dialogue between Mentor and Mentee – ideally, this dialogue should be expertly guided using a pre-determined set of questioning techniques which keep the Mentor and Mentee focused on building respect in line with achieving their knowledge or learning objectives and not necessarily moving in together.
  • CONFIDENTIALITY – arguably the most difficult challenge faced by Mentors and Mentees in a “business based” relationship of knowledge sharing and development, is how much do you, or can you share with each other about how you feel about how the business is run, or how the managers conduct themselves etc. The Mentor is almost invariably a senior engineer, departmental manager or even an executive, so how can the confidential conversations in a Structured Mentoring relationship be “ring-fenced” from (say) the Performance Management System or upcoming vacancy or promotion that has been advertised. A mutually agreed Code of Conduct and discussion on “relationship boundaries” is essential for any real confidence to be gained in “what we discuss in this relationship stays in this relationship”. A typical challenge encountered is, what happens when the Mentor discovers that the Mentee is in the process of looking for, or has found a new more lucrative or rewarding job, or the Mentor feels that an intervention is required with the Mentee’s manager due to some form of inappropriate business practice – how does the Mentor manage this?
  • FUN – significant brain based research by people such as the Neuroscience Leadership Institute,  and a host of publishing psychologists and development researchers, confirm that we learn faster and more effectively (retention and recall capability) if there is an element of Fun in our learning. Mentors and Mentees must ensure that they give a high degree of attention to making and creating fun in their interactions – one way is to create interesting learning “challenges” and “rewards” or to facilitate the development of self-esteem and personal worth, by creating “show and tell” knowledge sharing opportunities for the Mentees and their colleagues – proven knowledge sharing techniques such as the Retrospective Analysis, Knowledge Mapping or Intentional Story Telling add not only fun to the sharing process, but also contribute to the organisation via the creation of re-usable knowledge assets.

Structured Mentoring is not a training initiative – it is the development of a sustainable and pervasive organisational culture and competency of sharing and learning – whereby both the experienced and inexperienced learn from each other and from others and the quality of the sharing and learning will be directly proportional to the quality of the relationship.

Forced partnerships, coerced relationships and “marriages from hell” leave a trail of devastation in our personal and private lives and they can be hugely destructive in the business environment as well, often leading to the wholesale loss of significant corporate value in terms of the negative effects and impact that poorly selected relationships can have on young staff morale and management commitment.

So, if you find that your experienced Senior Engineers or Technical Specialists are struggling to retain or transfer “mission critical “operational and technical competencies to your new generation of younger engineers and technicians, and that key man dependency features high on your Organisational Risk Profile, then it may be a good time to consider the benefits of Structured Mentoring and remembering that effective knowledge transfer will only take place in an environment of Trust and that trust is something that is earned and not delegated and it takes time to develop – so engage with the potential knowledge stakeholders and let them co-elect the optimal relationships involving Mentors, Mentees and Technical Experts and then spend sufficient time and effort building these Relationships of Trust.