Starting with Trust

I have yet to come across anyone who argues that trust is a bad thing. There are certainly times where we don't trust people, and we wouldn't just blindly trust them because we think trust is generically a good thing, but we would never argue against the inherent value of trust.

But the universal acclaim that trust receives actually has a downside. Because everyone agrees it is a good thing, we tend to move it into the realm of simple declarations. We declare that there will be trust in our organizations. We put cool "trust" posters on the wall to remind ourselves of how our culture is built on trust. The problem with this is we easily forget what trust really means or what it requires.

I was thinking about this as I read Leslie White's great post on the SocialFish blog about social media policies. It has a wonderful list of elements that you find in good policies--things like explaining why you have rules and explaining what you will do when the rules are broken. It's a simple, powerful, and practical post (what I have come to expect from SocialFish!). And the very first bullet point is about trust:

Start with trust - A good policy starts from a position of trust--belief that your people want to do the right thing. The job of the policy is simply to guide your people on the desired behaviors and activities. A policy focused on what and how to do something is preferable to a long list of what you don't want the people to do. 

I completely agree with this, but before YOU agree, consider the implications. If you start from a position of trust, you are starting from a position of risk. There is no trust without risk. When you trust someone, you are putting your interests in their control. They have the ability to muck things up for you, and you are trusting them to take care of you (think about it: if they can't really do anything that affects you negatively, then it's not really trust).

So it's not just starting with the belief that your people want to do the right thing. That's too easy. It's easy to assume people have good intentions. Trust is about counting on them to behave in a way that is consistent with your interests, intention or not. There is, of course, a huge benefit to this kind of trust (read Covey's Speed of Trust). But it's hard work for people in authority to give up that kind of control and accept that kind of risk. As a leader, do you know if you are truly willing to trust your people?

Let's Talk About Workplace Culture


  1. 26.10.2009 at 9:58 am

    I believe (perhaps wrongly) that there are different levels of trust. As a leader, every person deserves some form of trust from me until they show me that they can’t be trusted…or perhaps that they can be trusted a great deal.
    Without some level of trust, it is difficult to believe that your team will actually accomplish what you need them to do.

  2. 26.10.2009 at 11:29 am

    Hey Eric. Absolutely there are levels of trust, and they can be built through iterative processes of extending trust and having it honored. I think what I’m trying to get at is that we sometimes have an idealized image in our head of how much we trust people that is in truth different than what we actually trust them to do or not do. It’s more subtle than we make it out to be sometimes.

  3. 26.10.2009 at 1:19 pm

    The Five Dysfunctions of a Team was one of the books that really helped me understand the importance of building trust as a foundation for all work the team does together. If you want people to work together effectively, those relationships have to be built on trust. You are so right about the risks involved but most things worth accomplishing come with risk!
    You raise an interesting question regarding the perception of trust vs. the reality of what people are trusted to do or not do. How many times have you heard someone in leadership talk about trust and then micromanage? Their perception certainly doesn’t match the reality in the workplace.
    If you are truly willing to trust your staff, you are willing to let them make mistakes, mentor their development and not be afraid to listen to difficult feedback. Trust has to be earned on both sides of the equation.

  4. 27.10.2009 at 9:02 am

    At the risk of stirring pot, I am concerned when I hear (and yes say myself) “I’ll trust you until you show me you can’t be trusted” because I’m not sure that if you are truly a trusting person you can or should turn this on and off. I’m equally concerned with the statement “You need to earn my trust.” As a parent of two school-age kids I know I’ve used both statements and have seen the wrong outcomes. My new mantra is to be trusting, to teach and explain I what see our outcomes and then correct when error happens while I continue to trust.
    Which is of course why I thought Leslie’s original post was dead-on.

  5. 27.10.2009 at 9:26 am

    When I meet with someone, I bring my trust to the table. There is no reason for me not to trust them. I trust their words, their actions, their thoughts, their concerns. Once they show me that they can’t keep their word, then I begin to lose trust in them.
    It’s similar to an emotional bank account. When I meet you, I place x amount of money (trust) into our joint account. I expect you to use my trust correctly and not overdraw the account. My comfort level with you is that you’ll deliver what you promised, especially if we’ve made some type of agreement. If you follow through on your promises, I put more into our joint bank account. As you continue to deliver, our emotional bank account continues to flourish and grow.
    If you make a mistake, miss a deadline, have an accident, it’s ok, because you won’t be overdrawing from that account. It’s overflowing with me at the moment. If you continue to NOT delier on your word, miss deadlines, etc., and it becomes a habit, eventually, you overdraw on that emotional account and go in debt with me regarding my trust.
    Then I lose trust with you and you have to earn it again.

  6. 27.10.2009 at 9:44 am

    You guys are awesome! Great comments. You are starting to see what a rich and nuanced topic trust really is. @Jeff your comments about a trust “account” are in line with what Covey says in his book. One interesting point is that it can take a lot of deposits to develop a significant account, but one small withdrawal can drain it completely.
    @Peggy I don’t know that I have the goal of being a “trusting person.” Frankly, I think I trust more than most, and I think that works for me, but it’s not about me as a person. It’s still about what works in my relationships. So there are a lot of contingencies for me. A lot depends on the context of the relationship of course.
    And all this points to a key difference between “situational” trust and “dispositional” trust. You get enough points in your account with someone, and suddenly they simply become a “trustworthy person.” It’s a way of simplifying the world. I don’t have to be keeping mental track of how much they have protected my interests on a situational basis. I just “know” I can trust them. It frees up a lot of time and energy, by the way.

  7. 03.11.2009 at 7:36 pm

    Wonderful dialogue. Let me see if I can at least emphasize a few things.
    First, dead right about there is no trust without risk. Trust that ignores risk is either blind faith or stupidity (not the same thing, but in this respect, identical).
    And trust that is purely calculated is not trust at all; Ronald Reagan lied when he said “trust but verify”–if you’re verifying all the time, you’re not trusting.
    Second, with all the talk about trust, we constantly forget that trust is a result–a result of two parties engaging in an asymmetrical relationship.
    One party trusts (or doesn’t). The other party is trusted (or isn’t). You can act either on one’s ability to trust, or on one’s ability to be trusted.
    Turns out it’s easier to train to be trustworthy than it is to train to trust. The propensity to trust is instilled by parents like Peggy (or not). The propensity to trust is correlated with optimism and with a belief that one has control over oneself in the world. Those who are pessimistic and believe others control them are those who don’t trust (think religious and political extremist organizations).
    The ability to behave in a trustworthy manner, while obviously subject to abuse (think Madoff or other con men), but is to a greater extent learnable–not by pure behavioral skills, but by learning how to relate better to other human beings by things like empathic listening or willingness to take small personal risks by speaking the truth.
    Trust is like fire: it’s hugely beneficial to society and to individuals, but you can get burned if you don’t handle it right.
    Trust is also paradoxical. I trust my dog with my life–but not with my ham sandwich. (But I guess that one’s for another blogpost).
    Keep up the great work.

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