Do you trust me?


It’s a curious twist of human nature that we seem to be attracted to the notion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, the end is nigh, and civilization is about to crumble around our ears.  Thankfully, these dire predictions have yet to be borne out, but for some reason, we like to think they will.  My thoughts were drawn along these lines when I read this summary, which seems to suggest that we have a crisis of organizational trust on our hands. But is it true?

Trust is important, don’t get me wrong.  It is the very medium in which our relationships exist – it so permeates out interactions with others that often we don’t even realize how crucial it is.  Without trust, partnerships break down, teams fail, organizations weaken, civilizations erode. But what is trust, exactly, and how is it relevant to business, really?

Well, since businesses are transacted through human relationships for the most part, it is really important.  When trust levels are reported to be high, these are some of the benefits organizations can enjoy:

  • Increased information sharing and collaboration
  • Enhanced innovation and creativity
  • Greater customer satisfaction
  • Higher engagement and commitment
  • Increased pride and loyalty
  • Greater retention
  • Improved alignment
  • Employee empowerment
  • Appropriate risk taking
  • More trustworthy behavior

On the flip-side, consequences of low trust include:

  • Limited communication
  • Stove piping and turf battles
  • Disengagement from the organization
  • Reduced morale
  • Distraction from core activities
  • Diminished productivity
  • Decreased risk taking and creativity
  • Culture of blaming and finger pointing
  • Increased interpersonal conflict
  • Greater incidence of unethical behavior

The reason underlying these outcomes lies in the nature of trust.  Trust is all about expectancy and vulnerability.  When we trust someone, we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable with them because we believe they will behave in the manner we expect.  This can be in the form of communication (I trust what you say is true), character (I trust you will do the right thing), competency (I trust you can do this job), or concern (I trust you to look out for me).  When people are simultaneously vulnerable and predictable, there is simply less friction and less energy wasted in self-protective maneuvering.  It is also more enjoyable to work this way.

But back to the question of whether we are facing a crisis of distrust, and if we ARE facing a crisis of trust – what can we do to build more trust?

I have consulted the oracle, and her name is Onora O’Neill.  In her recent TEDTalk, she shows that across time, opinion polls about trust simply don’t support the notion that trust levels are declining.  She also makes the point that in any event, we tend to make judgments about the trustworthiness of specific individuals in specific situations (e.g., I trust my sister to tell me if I have spinach between my teeth, but not to give me advice on what retirement fund to use).  Further, she sagely advises that blindly seeking to “build trust” is not necessarily a good aim; rather, we want to build trustworthiness and good judgment.  Having more trust in those who are not worthy of it is decidedly a bad idea.  Finally, she states, it is important to keep in mind that we cannot “rebuild trust” – trust is given by other people, so we can only give them evidence of trustworthiness, that they might rebuild it themselves.

The encouraging news is that we are not facing apocalyptic levels of distrust.  The downside is that there is no imminent escape hatch, and we each have to keep doing the hard work of being trustworthy and demanding it from others, of being vulnerable and willing to trust.  This needs to happen collectively, but at the individual level – not by attempting to build in accountability through convoluted systems and processes, which primarily serve as obstacles to the trustworthy. By so doing, we as a whole we can reap the benefits, as a climate of trust has far-reaching consequences for both individuals and organizations.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
―     Ernest Hemingway