Our predisposition towards mistrust is as old as time. Consider the Garden of Eden. Into a world knowing only trust, mistrust was seeded. The serpent’s first poisonous words to Eve were intended to drive a wedge between Creator and creation.
Ever since, there has been no shortage of wreckage caused by broken trust. We see it in relationships gone bad. It shows its face in boardrooms and spills out into corporate corridors. Newscasters dig beneath political personnas revealing political corruption. Labor negotiators flash pearly whites for public view then ravenous teeth for private confrontation.
C.S. Lewis skillfully imaged this age old disconnect between belief and practice, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong …. as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”
As Lewis rightly describes, with life on the line an interesting concept becomes a life-altering imperative. With his observations in mind, what are some essential strands to build strong ropes of trust?
Those whose lives depend on the rope must know that it has the competency to fulfill the task to which it is assigned. One does not pack a frayed 3 strand skipping rope to scale heights or descend cavernous depths. Such explorations are not the time for untested brands and experimental procedures.
The wise climber ensures that prior examination has been undertaken to prove that all the attributes necessary for the task are there. Tests determine that the rope will hold all adventurers regardless of size or shape. It has the competency to fulfill what the task requires.
In the same manner, we know that without demonstrated competency there is no foundation for trust. Leadership without competency may give an individual the title of leadership but it will not give him followers. The matter of competency seems too obvious to mention but a world littered by Enrons and Fannie Maes reminds us of our need for integrous competency that holds uncompromisingly true during hard times. The crucible burns away shallow veneers of competency.
Amazingly, there are some who set their trust bar very low. These give little examination to the trustworthiness of those in whom they place their trust. Otherwise intelligent people willingly surrender banking information to unsolicited e-mails promising not to be missed opportunities. Some, basing competency and credibility on media stories and guest show appearances, are crushed when heroes come crashing to earth.
Surely those in leadership who reached the top of the pyramid must possess the highest levels of competency and its assumed companion, integrity. Sadly, we know this not to be the case. Although much more could be noted about competency, it is insufficient as a single strand to merit assurances of trust.
Which brings us to our next, closely aligned strand of trust – reliability.
Reliability is a measure of deliverables. Promises may bring parties to the table but signatures convert those promises to commitments. Over time, consistency provides assurance that actions follow words. These are the demonstrations of integrity that provide strong assurance that the competency we have been shown will be backed up in the present and the future.
Promises made but not kept are one of the quickest ways to undermine trust. Unfortunately many people fail the reliability test in the small things. It is a meeting that is missed, a call not made, an e-mail not returned, or a time commitment which habitually ends up being an approximation not a certainty. We excuse rather than own. Fail in these areas often enough and the reliability so essential to trust begins to fray and dissassemble.
Unfortunately the predisposition to excuse makes it much easier to blame. Failures are the fault of the product fulfillment division or the incompetence of some underling who has been fingered to take the blame. Excuses reign. Contrast this with organizations such as the Ritz Carlton or Nordstrom’s who take reliability seriously. They do it not by reducing control to an anointed few but by trusting their employees and empowering them with the responsibility to make things right for their clients without having to consult higher ups. Entrusted, they deliver. It is no surprise that companies such as these have earned high measures of trust because they have a proven record of reliability. They can be counted on. Trust isn’t just a matter of ability. It is a matter of deliverability.
A third essential strand of trust is a binding cord that interlaces all the others. Without it, the rope will not stand up over time. That indispensable strand of trust is integrity or for purposes that will become evident, sincerity.
It is believed that the word, ‘sincerity’ originated from a practice used by merchants who couldn’t be depended on to act honorably. These less reputable ‘craftsmen’ doctored their wares, using wax to hide imperfections in their work. Most notably this process was used by potters who covered up cracks that occurred in the firing process. Their clay creations were essential for life, carrying life-giving water which was transported from wells. The bearer could ill afford to lose any of this precious liquid.
Knowing this, the wise purchaser would hold his purchase toward the sun to let light reveal what eyes had missed. Revelation was needed so there would be no Icarus calamity once the heat came. To validate that the potter’s creation met the reliability test, the maker would sign – sincerely – the potter’s assurance that his work was ‘sine’ – without; ‘cera’ – wax.
In the same way, trust rises or falls on the sincerity/integrity test. Can we have the assurance that the dialogue said to our face is the same as what will be said behind our back? Are promises made consistent with commitments that will be fulfilled? In short, can we have confidence that stated values are lived out values?
When words and actions are aligned, we lay a strong foundation of integrity, assuming of course these behaviors uphold value, dignity, and ethics consistent with, “Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us”. This type of integrity is more than speaking words of truth; it also leaves impressions of truth. Selected truth can cause someone to believe something that is not true. Though technically truthful, the exchange is dishonest. Our relationship encounters would benefit from that same sun-tested signature, “Sincerely yours”.
As Abraham Lincoln’s quipped, “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”
The last trust strand to be considered is Care.
Care is a descriptor of how we treat others and the value we assign to them. Trust must originate from values that are committed to ‘care’ starting with relationships closest to us, then within the organization, and finally reaching out to others. When care isn’t present, as Harlow’s monkey experiments demonstrated, relationships die. People once valued, disengage or disappear. Before long a ‘go through the motions’ culture, be it in the home or in the workplace, becomes evident to all.
It isn’t enough for individuals or organizations to adopt a ‘care’ strategy. Corporate newsletters may write about it, HR may institute programs, and leadership seminars may teach to it but without a deep understanding and ownership of genuine care, carefully cultivated trust images crack and fade. A culture characterized by Care promotes, recognizes, and honors contribution. Relationships become win-win investments not expedient ‘one-off’ opportunities.
Of course trust does not mean the absence of discernment. Boundaries are required to ensure that one doesn’t trust foolishly or recklessly (that discussion is for another time) but don’t be mistaken, an attitude that consistently defaults to mistrust is costly. Decisions that should be made quickly are delayed. Agreements are prescriptively scribed down to the smallest minutia. Engagement is guarded and commitment often goes no further than what is stipulated in agreements. These are just some examples of relational and economic damage that occurs when mistrust dictates culture.
What we know is this, when characterized by Competency, Reliability, Sincerity and Care, a culture of Trust will result in immense returns in your workplace and in your home.
So, take the risk and build a culture of Trust. Rather than waiting for others to step in and make things happen, take a risk and lead out in what it means to be a trust giver. You’ll be amazed how their world and yours will change.
by Rob Inrig
Copyright © 2012 www.RobInrig.com. All Rights Reserved.
I welcome your feedback as well as your ‘trust stories’, their impact, and the lessons you took from these. Submissions are made with the understanding that they may be freely and without obligation be used in any future publications by Rob Inrig.