Practical analysis for investment professionals
01 February 2017

Putting Out Trust Fires

You’re in the kitchen preparing dinner and a fire breaks out on the stove. What do you do?

  • Look disgusted, point a finger at the nearest person, and say, “It’s your fault.”
  • Remain calm, find a notepad, and write: “To-Dos: Put out kitchen fire.”
  • Ignore it and finish chopping the onions.
  • Jump into action, alert everyone, and put out the fire!

Too many teams respond to trust issues with one of the first three options. Big mistake.

Trust is core to team effectiveness. If it is damaged, team performance declines. For this reason, treat trust issues as you would kitchen fires. Use the final option: Grab the fire extinguisher and put it out immediately. Any delay could mean a larger fire and a bigger issue to contain.

Teams that ignore trust fires rationalize. Things will improve over time, they say. Time heals all wounds, right? Wrong.

I have seen this mistake time and again as the founder of Focus Consulting Group (FCG), a firm dedicated to helping investment leaders leverage their talent. FCG recently worked with a senior team to deliver a training seminar on trust with their managing directors. While planning the program, we asked, “How is trust at the senior level?” Their response? Embarrassed silence and awkward glances. Any serious training in trust has to start at the top, but their reply was, “We tried, but it didn’t go so well.” No action was taken.

Within a month of that discussion, the CEO had jumped to another firm. Several other talented professionals left the company soon after, and the exodus continues still. Morale is sinking.

We have countless stories like this, and they all hinge on broken trust at the senior level.

When trust is damaged, take immediate corrective action. Again, put the fire out as soon as you spot it.

Trust Issues = Kitchen Fires

Burn that equation into your memory.

So, how do you know a trust fire has ignited? John Gottman, an expert on trust and relationships, has studied these conflagrations extensively and come up with what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Below are the four signs of a trust fire and their remedies:


Apocalypse Level


Gottman states that the four levels of distrust are predictable in bad relationships. Just as a kitchen fire will spread and cause great damage, so will a trust fire. Don’t assume things will get better. Unfortunately, they almost always go the other way. The phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of intervention” is wise counsel. When you feel the slightest trust issue arising, jump on it immediately.

It helps if the whole senior team is familiar with this language and imagery so that anyone can invoke the “kitchen fire” rule.

For example, during a routine staff meeting, a colleague seems to take credit for work that you and he did together. You feel a little irritated and think, “He’s trying to take all the credit for our project.” That is a trust fire. Jump on it. How? Either during the meeting or after — certainly within 24 hours — respectfully bring up the incident using this model:

  • Set-Up: “I want to put out a possible trust fire because I believe we are both good team members and want to succeed as a team.”
  • Facts: “In the meeting, you mentioned the work that you had done on Project X. You didn’t mention that we worked on that together.”
  • Story: “My story is that our CEO now thinks you did that work on your own.”
  • Reaction: “I was a little irritated and felt like that created a small trust fire. Specifically, will I ever receive credit for my contributions when we work together?”
  • Request: “My request is that we share the credit for work on which we’ve collaborated and that you tell the CEO that you forgot to mention that you and I worked on it together.”

Can you see how easy it would be to let this trust fire grow? It’s not a huge deal, right? But that’s the problem.

These little incidents can accumulate and fester, and pretty soon they become a big deal and you are marching south on Gottman’s scale. Eventually, you are criticizing, blaming, or stonewalling. These trust issues then become much harder to solve. The kitchen is ablaze.

If you are currently a member of a high-performing team with high trust, that is great. Use that leverage — money in the trust bank, so to speak — to maintain that degree of trust.

If not, pass this post around to your team and discuss the concept and language with them. Work to make a habit out of extinguishing trust fires before they cause any damage.

High trust requires courage and skill to build and maintain. But nothing valuable comes easily. So agree as a team to do what is necessary to preserve it.

And repeat after me: “Trust issues equal kitchen fires.”

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/alfonsmartin

About the Author(s)
Jim Ware, CFA

James Ware, CFA, is the founder of Focus Consulting Group, a firm dedicated to helping investment leaders leverage their talent. Ware is the author of “Investment Leadership: Building a Winning Culture for Long-Term Success,” and "High Performing Investment Teams," both of which discuss those elements of leadership and teamwork that lead to sustainable success for investment firms. Ware has 20 years’ experience as a research analyst, portfolio manager, and director of buy-side investment operations. He has been a guest lecturer on the topic of investment firm management at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University. Ware has a Masters in Business from the University of Chicago and a degree in philosophy from Williams College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

1 thought on “Putting Out Trust Fires”

  1. Clement Gavi says:

    Trust can be a cultural characteristic.

    In considering the example ‘during a routine staff meeting, a colleague seems to take credit for work that you and he did together.’, the question we can ask is what would have been the attitude if within the structure collaboration is highly valued?. By this I mean the given in a structure inspire unconsciously the conducts or the structure shapes conducts.

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