Just Trust Me

Regardless of whether we’re politicians, managers or parents, our most valuable relationship asset is “trust”. With a healthy accumulation of “trust” in hand all relationships with constituents, employees and children are easier, simpler and more pleasant. Without “trust” life is difficult. If this is obvious, and it is, then why do we seem to go out of our way to squander these benefits?

Without cracking open our well worn dictionaries and thesauri and digging up a lifeless definition… what is “trust”? Two images come to mind; a parent standing in a pool entreating a nervous child at the edge of a swimming pool to “jump! I’ll catch you!” and of Charlie Brown running, for the 700th time, to kick the football held by a deceitful Lucy.

Those simple images sum up what we already know. Trust is our willingness to accept a risk on someone else’s assurance of safety. The reasons behind this willingness are worth dissecting, because hopefully they’ll provide a basis for techniques to both build and retain trust in the workplace.

Benevolence: The child trembling with fear at the edge of the pool will leap into the waiting arms of her parent, because she knows, with absolute certainty, that Mommy won’t let her down. That the parent has the best interests of the child at heart: no deceit; no hidden agenda.

Do those we want to trust us, know that about us? That we have their best interests at heart? That we won’t let them down? Have we demonstrated our benevolence in the past with more than words? Do we put their interests before our own, once we’ve made them a promise or given our word?

Credibility: The child knows that Mommy won’t lie. That if Mommy says she’ll catch her, that she will catch her.

This is perhaps the easiest aspect of trust to avoid violating. Never make a promise, a statement, or even suggest you’ll do something and then not do it. Once upon a time, perhaps in a fantasy land, our word was our bond. Once we said something, then we’d follow through no matter what the consequences. Sadly, today our word isn’t sufficient. We exchange contracts and employ legions of lawyers to ensure that we all agree on what the phrase “I will” really means.

Competence: The child knows that Daddy won’t drop her. That he has the skill, the strength and ability to catch her and keep her safe from harm.

Your knowledge of my competencies is a crucial component of your trust in me. If I say I’m going to do something, one of your first thoughts is “Can he do it? Does he have the skills? Can I rely on him to deliver?” This consideration forces me to do two things. First? I’ll never commit to something I can’t do. Second? I need to ensure you have a good understanding of my capabilities.

There’s more to this thing called “trust”. We could explore the notion of fairness; do we treat everyone equally both in terms of rewards and punishments? Do we adhere to Golden Rule?

We could also include concepts of openness and shared risk. We could explore the notion of trust between strangers and arrangements based on mutually shared consequences, but the bulk of trust is based on the concepts of benevolence, competence and credibility.

Meanwhile… we left Charlie Brown running at that football… you’ve read the comics, you know what will happen this time. Lucy, for personal reasons beyond our ken, will pull that ball away for the 700th time and Charlie will once again launch himself into the air, to land with a sickening crunch on the wet grass. He never learns.

A news flash to all managers – Charlie Brown doesn’t work for you. He’s a cartoon figure. Those working for you are real people, with memories like elephants. They never forget.

That’s the glass jaw of this thing called trust. It can take years to develop, and then a single betrayal of someone’s trust will not only demolish all we’ve worked to achieve, but it will severely hamper our ability to build trust in the future. Unlike Charlie Brown, we’re unlikely to trust people after a single betrayal, never mind constant betrayal.

Understanding trust isn’t difficult, all we have to do is just remember why we were willing to leap into a parent’s arms, and then be willing to trust the reasoning of the child we once were.