Can I trust you? Six aspects of human interaction where questions of trust arise

April 27, 2017

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust lately, partly because I’ve been working with teams. Trust is the bedrock of team work, but the more I talk and read about it, the more I realise that we’re not always talking about the same thing. It’s not as straightforward as ‘I trust you or I don’t’. It’s not even about trusting some people more than others. What people rarely seem to discuss is what it is that we might trust people to do or not do.

Fundamentally, trust seems to boil down to the question, ‘In my interactions with you, will I suffer any adverse outcome?’. But these adverse outcomes vary not just in severity but also in nature. ‘You let me down by not delivering on time’ is a very different form of breach of trust from ‘You lied to me’. It’s not that one is worse than the other – you could have a trivial lie and a serious issue with late delivery or vice versa, but they seem to me to be quite different experiences. So with that in mind, I’ve identified six aspects of human interaction where questions of trust arise.

1. Intention – Will you do me any harm?

At the most basic, this is about threats to our safety and security – is it safe to walk down a dark alley with you? Are you trying to steal my valuables? Thankfully, most of us don’t face these kind of threats at work. But we do face threats to our emotional well-being and social standing. Will you laugh at my ideas? Will you shout at me if I own up to a mistake? Will you tell me I’m stupid if I admit I don’t understand something? Do you roll your eyes if I disagree with you?

2. Awareness – Will you accidentally hurt me?

Some people don’t mean any harm but cause it anyway. Someone who doesn’t know their own strength might accidentally break your arm while messing about. Similarly, someone with very little interpersonal awareness might say something hurtful or poke a sensitive issue without realising.

3. Integrity – Are you who you say you are? 

While we don’t like or trust those who may harm us, at least we know to avoid them if we can. Far more damaging are people who appear to be on our side, but aren’t. At the extreme, there can surely be no greater betrayal than discovering that your partner and fellow environmental activist, with whom you’ve shared not just a cause, but your life, is actually an undercover police officer sent to spy on you. In the workplace, it’s the snakes in suits, the smooth-talking political operators who gain people’s trust, then abuse it and lose it. I share my ideas with you and you pass them off as your own. You support a decision in a meeting and then undermine it afterwards. You talk publicly about the importance of work-life balance and then quietly label those who go home on time as ‘not career-focused’.

4. Reliability – Can I rely on you to do what you say?

If you say you’ll do something, will you do it? Do you show up on time? Do you hit your deadlines? Do some things slide off your to-do list never to be mentioned again? Do you keep people informed if you’re not going to be able to deliver? Do you forget stuff?

5. Competence – Will you do it properly?

This one comes up a lot when delegating, but can also be an issue between peers. Do you know what you’re doing? Do you understand the situation properly? Have you got the right skills? Are you sloppy about standards? Do you know how to use an apostrophe correctly?

6. Commitment – Are you as committed to this as I am?

Are we in this together? Will you bail out if the going gets tough and leave me to deal with the mess? Do you have split loyalties? If you belong to more than one team, which one has your primary allegiance if push comes to shove? In many senior management teams, people actually feel closer to the teams they lead, with whom they spend far more time, than to their peers, which can undermine the cohesiveness of the SMT.

In the eye of the beholder 

Of course, all these questions are from the perspective of the person giving – or not giving – their trust. But people vary enormously in their capacity to trust, regardless of what the other person does or doesn’t do. Some people approach the world open and unguarded, assuming most people are well-intentioned, until proven otherwise. Others are more sceptical, or even cynical, believing trust has to be earned. For an unlucky few, who’ve been through real trauma, especially in childhood, the world is such an unsafe place that they trust no one, are hyper-vigilant and approach all interactions in a very guarded way.

These different orientations towards trust play out in different ways in teams. Those who are fundamentally trusting are often pretty tolerant of people’s human foibles and failings. They might be annoyed if you don’t deliver on time or hurt by an angry outburst but the damage can usually be repaired. If you break their trust by being deceitful, however, they may be very hurt and feel doubly betrayed. They trusted you and that was a gift you abused. That damage may be very hard to repair without sincere remorse and efforts to make amends on the part of the trust breaker.

People who don’t trust easily, on the other hand, may feel angry if you’re deceitful but they didn’t expect any better so it doesn’t fundamentally change their perspective – ‘see, I told you you can’t trust anyone’. They’ll still deal with you, as warily as they ever did. Where their lack of trust plays out in teams is in misreading the intentions of basically decent colleagues, seeing ill-intent where there is none. From time to time we all inadvertently say and do things which hurt others. We also all have a tendency to put our own failings or poor behaviour down to circumstance but others’ behaviour down to character traits. So if a conversation gets heated and I lose my temper, I was under a lot of pressure and was provoked. If you do it, you’re a domineering bully. We all do this, but the tendency is probably more pronounced in mistrustful people. They may see hidden agendas and organisational politics which aren’t really there (I’m not suggesting they’re never there). Imaginative, mistrustful people make fantastic conspiracy theorists!

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Sadly, the research suggests that expecting social rejection can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go into situations expecting that people won’t like you, your defensive behaviour means you’ll probably be right. It’s one of the reasons that lonely people tend to become more socially-isolated. Anxiety seems to play a part – anxious people have hair-trigger sensitivity to others’ facial expressions and jump to conclusions about how people are reacting to them.

What does this mean for teams?

If you’re the trusting type, you may need to be more considered and careful in some of your behaviour as your less trusting colleagues may be less forgiving of your human weaknesses than you are of theirs. You may also need to be alert to the fact that not everyone is as well-intentioned as you. Some people really are manipulative game players. Unfortunately, you may need to get them off your team in order to have a really high performing, cohesive unit.

If you’re a less trusting type, you may need to see if you can open up to others a little more and cut them a bit of slack. The better you get to know people, the more likely you are to relax around them and see that, even when they let you down, it was probably more cock-up than conspiracy.

If your team is grappling with issues of trust and you’d like a chat, do get in touch:

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  1. gfas2010 April 27, 2017 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    Well done Caroline. I very useful and thoughtful piece.

  2. Natsu April 27, 2017 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    That was a nice post. I agree it is useful and puts some insight to what we feel about trust.

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