If there is one word I find nobody feels neutral about, it’s the word TRUST. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and everyone has stories to tell that lead to their opinions.

Confucius is known to have said: “I wouldn’t know what to do with someone whose word cannot be trusted. How would you drive a wagon without a yoke or a chariot without a crossbar?”

John C Maxwell said: “Trust is like oxygen; when there is enough available, nobody notices its presence. The moment there is a shortage of trust; everybody notices it in very real way!”

Many people refer to trust as the foundation of relationships; and yet most people in my trust sessions seem to have difficulty trusting, and therefore experience foundational problems in many key relationships in their lives.

There seem to be two main views around people’s approach to trusting others:

Trust is earned, and most people can’t be trusted. I therefore reserve my trust until you have given me enough reason to trust you. I don’t trust you, prove me wrong…

Some quotes from this perspective are:

  • I’ll start letting my guard down when people stop giving me reasons to keep it up. -Anonymous
  • I’ve learned that it takes years to build up trust, and it only takes suspicion, not proof, to destroy it. -Anonymous
  • People ask me why it’s so hard to trust people, and I ask them why it is so hard to keep a promise. -Unknown

It was very interesting to see during my research that the people who made these comments often chose to remain anonymous. The stories that accompany these views are sometimes real, and explain why many of them struggle to trust. But in certain cases the individuals’ perception or reality is as a result of one incident – projected onto the rest. I have had several people who got so badly hurt in one relationship that they came to believe that every one of the rest would do the same, if given a chance.

With this view of people, one would enter every situation with suspicion, question people’s agendas, micro manage projects and live in constant fear. It is also my experience that this group would, despite their thoroughness and controls experience self-fulfilling prophesies of individuals letting them down.

Then there is the other view:

Most people are trustworthy. I trust people until they prove me wrong.

Again a few quotes supporting this view:

“You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you don’t trust enough.” -Frank H. Crane

“The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” -Henry Lewis Stimson

“It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.” -Dr Samuel Johnson

These quotes not only indicate the difference between the two opposing views, but also speak about another interesting fact. By risking trusting people we somehow put healthy pressure on them to do the right thing, and to honour the trust placed in them. Reciprocity or mutuality seems to be working in both trust and distrust.

I once suggested to someone my opinion that I was too trusting. His response took me by surprise:

“Don’t ever change that. When you trust too much some people might want to take advantage of you, but most people would want to live up to it.”

As leaders we find that we sometimes trust one person in one area, but not with another task. Or we sometimes trust the same person for a task, but under different circumstances, don’t trust him for a similar task… The team member senses the distrust, and this affects the task negatively. What would be the reason for this?

To underst and this better, we need to firstly separate the person from the task. Looking at the individual in question, our perception or knowledge of his values plays a huge role in the level of and the area of trust.

One person will for instance give financial advice to make the most commission, because he is motivated by money and believes he deserves it, where another would suggest a solution and make less commission because she is driven to help people have quality lives and believe that to be the best solution.

Are our values aligned? Are we looking at this situation through the same moral lenses?

The second important personal factor that influences our willingness to trust someone is our opinion or perception of the individual’s credibility. Credibility has four (4) components:

  • Integrity – Does the person do what he says?
  • Intent – Does she mean well or is there a hidden agenda?
  • Capabilities – Does he have the knowledge and skills to do the task?, and lastly
  • Results – Is there a track record of successful application of the said knowledge and skills?

My level of comfort with these four components will influence my level of comfort trusting the individual with the task…

But even if I am completely comfortable with the individual in the task, the actual TASK could have such a high RISK that I choose to remain close to the implementation of the project or operation. One simple illustration would be the following:

  • I owe my neighbour R100. My son is very trustworthy, and committed to making me proud. He knows the neighbour, and goes there often. Without a second thought, I ask him to take the money to my neighbour in an envelope, with my message of thanks.
  • I owe my neighbour R10 000.00… I’d rather take it myself.

If we become aware of a feeling of discomfort trusting someone with a task, this approach will help me determine the reason for my discomfort, and also offer me as leader the information I need for a constructive conversation. i.e. “John, I know that your commitment is without question, but because you’ve never done this before, I’d prefer that you do the first one with Jenny”

Another approach may be, “Liezl, the risk in this case is so high, that even if I know you can and will do a good job, I’d prefer to remain close to the project. We are all human, and having more eyes and ears available spreads the risk for us all. This has nothing to do with your credibility.”

Trust is something we need to constantly work on, even when things seem to be going well in our relationships – professional, and personal. It is when things go wrong, and we hit rocky patches. When the pressure is on, and our existence or success seem be threatened, that the levels of trust make all the difference.

Where the trust is secure everyone can focus on the challenges at h and, but where it is in question, everyone seems to be checking their own backs, and are not willing to take any risks. Building relationships is not easy, but like anything valuable in life it takes time and dedication, and comes at a price. If we are willing to proactively build, and maintain this foundation, when the difficult times come, trust will be the glue that keeps our families, and companies together.

Stefan Lessing