Once or more each week, I literally put my life in the hands of some lovely people whom I had never met before, up until ten months ago.
While top-roping a climb has its own risks from poorly fitted kit, incorrectly tied knots, etc. it is lead climbing that is the more dangerous of the forms of sport climbing. Leading a climb involves taking the rope up with you, clipping into quickdraws as you ascend but often leaving you high above the last clipping point and looking at a fall of double that distance, plus some more, before you come to a stop. Aside from the practical dangers of back or z-clipping, stepping behind the rope, getting your skin/fingers trapped in equipment and many more, much of lead climbing is psychological.
Lead climbing high above your last piece of protection is not comforting, if you’re even able to pluck up the courage to move into that position. You’re barely hanging on, already tired from what you’ve done to get to this point, you need to take one hand off to clip the rope in… and any slip at this point will mean a big fall. There are many articles and courses out there on “lead climbing fear” and it’s one of the major blockers to climbers progressing in that form of the sport.
One thing to consider carefully here is the role of the belayer. The core purpose of their role is to prevent injury or even death in the event of a fall and there are many other things that make a good belayer great. But for me, a missing point on so many of those lists is their ability to give me as a climber the confidence to focus on my own job, without having to give a second thought as to what my partner is doing on the ground. It’s even more important to those of us struggling with the fear of leading.
Trust in a belayer is built on experience of climbing with them, observation and interestingly also by the trust shown in them by others I know and whose opinion I respect. The network of partners willing to climb with each other grows amongst a group in a good but remarkable way, considering the risks involved.
To reach the stage where I have implicit trust in my partner where I absolutely know without having to check, nor even consider checking, that they are there, attentive, watching only me, looking out for mistakes and ready for anything that might happen, is empowering. It allows me a freedom to push myself to my physical and psychological limits. It’s a climbing nirvana in which I can lose myself and climb naturally or one where I can be entirely in the moment, focused and thinking only of the climb up ahead and not the potential fall down below.
The ability to have trust in my testing peers at work is also important, albeit done in a less deadly environment.
The trust though doesn’t seem to come as naturally in the professional world as the climbing one and honestly, I’m still not sure why that is. With new colleagues, I know that my employer will have hired amazing testers, but that level of complete trust between us isn’t automatically there at day one. Instead, it is built up over time from experiential data where we start working together in the same team, the same project or even pairing on a task. But I still find it hard to pick out many precise moments where I consciously note that I now trust that person a little bit more than before. Perhaps trustworthiness comes just from repeated, positive interactions that build that bond.
Although pinpointing its origins is difficult, we can still look at some of the benefits and why trust in another tester is helpful. For example, if I’ve made a suggestion about an area that should be tested as a result of a change, I would know that a trusted tester would follow up on that idea and take a look, or perhaps I’ve asked for a particular task to be carried out and know that the tester will do that task, do it well and at an appropriate time. An advantage to me is that I can cross those sorts of things off my list, whether a physical one on a notepad or just a mental one. I can consign the idea or task to the waste bin and not have to remember to check up, remind nor pursue. It’s a pressure off my own job and again gives me the freedom to do my own tasks.
Similarly, because I trust my manager, I know that he will have given careful consideration to budgets, context switching, deadlines and a whole host of other things when he takes me out of one project where I’m deeply involved onto another new critical one. I know that it’s not a spur of the moment decision that’s come lightly (and I usually assume he’s not doing it just as a challenge!). For me though, it means that there’s no frustration (“Why me? Why now when I’m in the middle of something?”) that could get in the way, no doubt to creep in. I can focus and get on with doing the best job I can.
Writing this has made me more aware that it’s a two-way process and that I should take time to consider how I can be, and come across as, more trustworthy at work. With some research, there are some clear points on which I – or anyone else – can work: communication, integrity, consistency, fairness… but the one that spoke volumes to me was “shared gain” – after all, we are all on the same team. Having mutual goals or helping share and work on another’s goal feels like something we can all do more often.
Whether climbing with a partner, testing in a team or any one of many interactions and relationships between two people, trust is both crucial and often difficult to define. Thankfully, there are people out there with the perfect credentials and eloquence to come to my rescue, like David DeSteno, a Professor of Psychology who in The Truth About Trust writes “Intuitive trust, or impulsive trust, as it’s sometimes termed, refers to evaluations of a partner’s trustworthiness that occur outside of conscious awareness. […] Reasoned, or reflective, trust is just the opposite. It’s an assessment based on deliberate analysis. It’s the kind of trust we often call into question when we’re engaging in what-ifs“.
I’m sure there’s some of each type in the two worlds I’ve described above, but I find the distinction between them that DeSteno defines does help explain the disparity in how trust grows. While trustworthiness seems more demonstrable at the foot of a wall and conveyed with good practice, perhaps at the workplace it isn’t just as clear cut, simply requiring more time and effort by everyone involved.