Monday, February 06, 2020

In Whom Can We Trust?

I seem to have been thinking and writing a great deal about trust recently. There's so little of it in the world at the moment. Whether it's politics, business or the media, nobody seems willing or able to trust anyone else's word, their honesty or even their patriotism, hence an increasingly polarized and confrontational atmosphere. You cannot cooperate where there's no trust. You cannot have healthy debate between differing viewpoints. What you get instead is something close to open warfare, where every dirty trick is fair.

In leadership, trust is fundamental. That's why this prevailing lack of trust may explain some of the stress people are facing in the workplace.

If leaders don't trust their subordinates, they must either do all the work themselves, or constantly check to see it has been done. Either course increases pressure and workload—and involves them in activities they shouldn't waste their time doing. Of course, their subordinates quickly realize they aren't trusted. No only does this create a poisonous atmosphere, it increases pressure on the subordinate as well. A boss who routinely doesn't trust you isn't going to back you up, or come to your assistance if things go wrong. The only way to protect yourself is to make sure you never give him or her any excuse to find fault. How do you do that? By avoiding risk, novelty or fresh ideas. Stick exactly to what you're told, even if it's wrong; show no initiative; and always cover your backside, however much time and resource you waste by doing so—and however many opportunities you pass up along the way.

When subordinates lose trust in their leaders, their anxiety rises to stratospheric levels. Maybe the boss is taking them in the wrong direction, threatening their bonuses, promotion prospects and long-term employment? If there's a problem, will the boss sell them down the river to save him or herself? Will the boss get a promotion in return for handing out pink slips? Hide any difficulties. Don't tell the boss more than you must. If there's trouble, conceal it as long as you can.

Yes, communication stops instantly trust is gone. Bosses who see their subordinates as untrustworthy won't share information if they can avoid it. Anxious employees aren't going to volunteer any information to management, especially if they fear it could be used against them. In an organization where trust has collapsed, the only form of communication that still works at full throttle is the rumor-mill, adding to the general feeling of paranoia.

Command-and-control management is the ultimate negation of trust, coming as it does with the in-built assumption people do only what they are made to do under threat of sanctions. Is it any wonder our longest-established corporations suffer from confrontational relations with organized labor? There are decades of distrust to remind both sides why they need to treat every negotiation as something close to a military campaign; and every outcome as victory or defeat.

At the individual level, haste, pressure and harassment are all enemies of trust. Trust demands you give the other person time and space to produce the result. You can explain the need for haste, but once you place the task in their hands, you must leave it to them. Following up to check it's being done with the speed you requested is already a small betrayal. Putting someone under pressure to produce results says you don't trust them to understand the need and offer you the results needed without your badgering. Harassment says you neither trust them, nor even believe in their willingness to do their job without the threat of punishment.

What's the answer? In whom can we trust?

Trust is said to be earned, but I think that's wrong. Trust has first to be given—and given freely. If the result of assuming others are trustworthy proves to be positive, greater trust results. Over time, the atmosphere becomes suffused with trust, so that even the occasional betrayal (all human beings are fallible) won't change the prevailing sense of community. Trust not given at the outset, more even than trust betrayed, starts a negative spiral That first gift of trust—freely offered, without any proof that it's deserved—is the key. Without it, there's no possibility any further trust can be "earned."

We need the courage, as leaders, always to start from an implicit assumption of trust. Then we need to maintain that position. Most people have suffered multiple betrayals by the time they've been in work for even a few years. They won't give full trust instantly. But if you persist, they will come to trust you; nearly everyone prefers it to the alternative. And with that trust will come other benefits—open communication, fresh ideas, greater initiative, support offered before it's even sought. As the boss, you're fallible too. Subordinates who trust you will either save you, if they can, or work to dig you out of the mess, if they can't stop you in time.

Remember trust involves obligations too. Your people need to be able to trust you to look out for them; to stand up for their interests and do all you can to help them survive and prosper. But you knew that, didn't you? Great leaders have an unswerving loyalty to those who follow them. It's so much an essential of real leadership, it's hard to imagine anyone can suppose they can be a leader and treat their people with anything less than total devotion. Perhaps the best definition of a dictator is someone who demands complete loyalty from others, but gives none in return.

I do not believe you can practice genuine leadership without a fundamental commitment to trust. Slow Leadership should, I think, go even further and demand no less than everything you have to give: trust, loyalty, openness and a firm belief in the essential goodness of humanity. In return, it will offer you something no amount of money can buy—the lifelong love, admiration and loyalty of those who have the privilege of working for you.

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James Shewmaker said...

I have to disagree with part of this article.

I was under the impression that you advocated "Slow" leadership. This article is advocating "Fast" trust.

A good leader is prepared to evaluate trustworthiness by reasonable criteria. The problem with the average "manager" is that neither the manager nor the employees has any idea how one goes about "earning trust." Therefore saying "trust has to be earned" is equivalent to creating an unreachable goal.

The fact is that all people are not equally trustworthy and it is a complete neglect of duty to treat all people with the assumption of trustworthiness.

A system which is much more realistic than the one that is described in this article is what Stephen Covey refers to as "Levels of Initiative"

The idea is that you assign meaningful and well-defined tasks using the five key elements of effective delegation. Each time the employee fulfills the delegation agreement, his level of initiative is increased. Eventually, if he or she consistently fulfills there delegation agreements, they are only expected to report back to their leader at specific scheduled intervals such as monthly, quarterly or annually.

The fastest way to research what Stephen Covey has written about this topic is to use's search feature. I recommend using {"level of initiative" covey} as your search query. There should be four books listed by Amazon which each discuss Covey's view of Trust and Delegation.

BTW, Covey also states that skill competence must be combined with trustworthy character. He states that competence without character (trustworthiness) is disasterous and so is character without competence.

12:35 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...


I see your point, but I'm not sure we're actually talking about anything very different.

My suggestion deals only with the starting point. To allow someone to earn trust, however you define the process, there has to be a starting position. If that position is one of distrust, it's hard to see how there can be any progress. You aren't going to put someone you distrust in a situation where you must trust them -- so how can they demonstrate they are actually trustworthy?

By starting with trust, you give the other person the chance to reveal they can be trusted.

Of course, if they reveal the opposite, you'll be less likely to trust them again. As you say, not all people are trustworthy. Even more intend to be honest, but are (like all of us) fallible. Do you condemn them as "untrustworthy" on the basis of a single error? That's what I mean by giving them time to show their true colors.

I don't think this can be described as "fast" trust. If anything, it's about being "slow" to condemn and taking the proper time to let people learn to trust you.

7:29 PM  
rabbit said...

If anything, it's about being "slow" to condemn and taking the proper time to let people learn to trust you.

Bingo. The way James descrived Covey's book makes it sound very strict and regimented, something I'm not a fan of.

I've always thought that when you meet someone new, you give them a pool of trust. It simply happens (in my case).

And when Carmine says (basically) give people the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, I seriously doubt he meant trust your newest employee (or anyone) with the keys to your house and your girlfriend's phone number. Obviously, right?

The problem with the average "manager" is that neither the manager nor the employees has any idea how one goes about "earning trust."

Eh... sad outlook.

On the note of trust being given before "necessarily being earned," -- what about respect? Can you respect someone who doesn't respect you? Can you love someone who doesn't love you? Don't all these wonderful words require an implicit sense of being reciprocal?

I had a college psychology teacher who had a personal definition of love. He said love was a word, therefore it must have a definition. His definition contained 5 points:

1. Communication.
2. Understanding.
3. Respect.
4. Equality.
5. Trust.

Yes. :)

10:33 PM  
James Shewmaker said...


With regards to your comment to my previous feedback, I completely agree with you that an assumption of untrustworthiness does not allow the other person to demonstrate trustworthiness. I would have refered to this as an open-minded neutrality with regards to the other person's trustworthiness.

There are many people who assume that all members of a certain occupation or of a certain culture or of a certain race are untrustworthy. That assumption does not allow for an openminded assessment rather it is an insurmountable barrier.

I know that some who profess belief in Jesus miss part of the point of Acts 17:11. The writer is not commending them for believing what Paul taught but rather for their willingness to first listen with an unbiased ear and secondly to honestly compare what he was saying with the Hebrew scriptures.

That does not mean that they "trusted" Paul when he first began speaking but rather that they were open-minded and neutral as to whether he was trustworthy until they had more evidence.

Rabbit, you are very mistaken in thinking that my assessment of Covey's "Levels of Initiative" is strict and rigid. There can not be any initiative where there is rigidity. Everything within Covey's presentation of these levels shows them to be a customizable generic framework and not a one-size fits all set of specific "Thou Shalt do this and by no means that" regulations.

A person who has no initiative can not delegate iniatiative to others. Inherent within the concept of leadership or management which permits initiative to followers or subordinates is the fact that the leader or manager must also possess initiative.

9:58 AM  

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