Letters to an open source contributor: Trust

One man with arms crossed, falling backwards off a stone, into the arms of another man.

Open source software projects depend on a large group of passionate “do-ers,” who collaborate online to build or improve something that they all care about. Connections between contributors is frequently tenuous; you’re reviewing code or designs or discussing UI with people you may have never met or seen, and maybe never will. But you want to work together, toward a common goal, and working together requires trust.

Image from The New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, 1993

It’s not easy to build trust among strangers via the internet, but it’s not impossible, and it’s worth your time. Strangers-on-the-internet-trust is fragile, though, so this is primarily habit-building work. Here’s my advice on how to build and keep trust in an open source project:

Be reliable

If you only take one piece of advice from this article, let it be this one. Trust is built, sometimes imperceptibly, by engaging in predictable, repetitive positive behavior over time. Even if you do not *intend* to show people you are trustworthy, if you repeatedly keep your promises, people will start to trust you. Predictable behavior makes people feel safe, so people will tend to have a more positive impression of reliable contributors, as well.

Warning: this goes the other way, too! If you repeatedly *fail* to keep your promises, or unpredictably attend meetings/give feedback/respond to comments, then people will — usually unconsciously — decide you are not trustworthy. Open source communities tend to be skeptical already, so it’s particularly difficult to prove you can be trusted, if you are not reliable.

Now obviously, the best laid plans “gang aft agley.” And a contributor community is made of humans, so they know that sometimes emergencies or unexpected things happen. If something comes up that will affect your ability to keep your promise, or delay your ability to do so, then you just need to tell people in advance. And if you can’t do something that affects other people’s ability to do work, then you need to find someone to cover for you, in advance.

If you don’t find someone to cover for you on some urgent or important work, it’s possible that someone else will jump in and handle it (this is an example of leading at any level). You’ll be tempted to think that, because people kept working despite your unreliable behavior, that the unreliable behavior had no impact. Wrong! People remember when you don’t keep your word. They will probably forgive you and they may keep liking you, but the trust they had in you is damaged. The more unreliable you are, the harder it is to convince people that *this time* you can be trusted.

Be realistic

Important! This is the most pernicious pattern I see, among well-meaning contributors.

Don’t give your word if you can’t keep it.

I know you want to do it all, I know it’s all important, I know people need help. But you do absolutely no good when you make promises that you can’t keep. In fact, you do damage to the effort, because you’re taking a contributor spot that might have been filled by someone who did have the time, but was just too timid to speak up, or was waiting to see if they were really needed. It’s harder to hand off work that you can’t do after all, than it is to get someone to do work that no one was doing in the first place.

Underestimate how much time you’ll have, and then work from that expectation. Doing more is always welcome, but doing less will cause problems for others. Even if you mean well, you will still lose trust by over-estimating your available time or skills.

Be consistently genuine

People don’t trust liars, for good reason. If you lie or try to deceive people in an organization, two things will happen:

  1. Word will spread. No one likes being deceived or manipulated, and they will complain to SOMEONE. This is prime gossip material. Open source communities are like small towns: we have no secrets.
  2. People will stop believing your word, even if you didn’t lie directly to them, AND even when you are telling the truth.

You can build trust back up after you’ve been reliable for a while, but overcoming your reputation as a liar is incredibly difficult. The best approach is to tell the truth or, if there’s a good reason you can’t, then say nothing at all. Smart people will hear both what you say and what you do not say.

Be generous

Weird, right? But people want to trust people they like, and people like people who help and care about them. So in order to build trust in an organization, be as generous as you can be: with your time, your feedback, your support, and your praise.

Photo by Zen Chung on Pexels.com

While we’re here, remember that one way to act “stingy” in open source is to take more than your share of credit for work. By lifting other people up higher than yourself, you demonstrate a generosity of spirit — humility, really — that shows up as a gift in open source.

Be generous with your attention, as well. People are more inclined to like and trust someone who is genuinely interested in their goals and well-being. Ask people how they’re doing, and remember details about their lives. Tell people when you notice they’re doing great work — and notice that great work in public, too.

What did I miss?

I’ve definitely fallen into a few of these patterns myself, so I know how easy it is to do. What are some other ways you see people making it more difficult to trust them? How do you judge whether you can trust someone? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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