There is an old Russian proverb “doveryai, no proveryai” (Russian: Доверяй, но проверяй) – Trust, but Verify.
This was a signature phrase of Ronald Reagan and he used it usually when discussing relations with the Soviet Union. When discussing leadership, the concept of trust often emerges as the single most important element in a leader-follower relationship.
With that in mind: “Is trust a ‘transaction'”?
The way that Ronald Reagan approached the United State’s relationship with the Soviets, perhaps trust was simply a transaction. But with organizations in a free society, should we use this “trust as a transaction” approach with the people we lead?
I once worked with a leader who was concerned about trust within the organization. He often asked the people reporting to him if they trusted him. Over time, his discussions and his actions revealed that this “leader” had little, if any, trust in some of his direct reports. It seemed very apparent that “a lack of trust” was always on his mind.
This lack of trust seemed to permeate the whole place. It was also apparent in the organization as employees rarely spoke up at meetings or asked questions publicly. On the surface, no one spoke up. But as one might expect, the “back channels” of politics and rumors were rampant with incessant chatter. Simply stated; there was no trust. As a natural consequence to this type of environment, even “good” conflict and discussion didn’t occur. We were working in a truly dysfunctional organization due to a lack of trust.
This experience was a prime example of trust being considered a transaction. And, as one might expect with something so valuable and fragile, it didn’t work to build anything worthwhile in terms of organizational effectiveness.
The conventional wisdom is “trust is earned.” But this is just another way of saying that trust is a transaction. It simply doesn’t provide a lasting structure that supports any type of real progress over time.
This type of thinking follows the idea that “if you trust me, then I will trust you.” This type of transactional thinking provides a very shallow and fragile sort of relational bond. It can be broken easily and therefore is probably not worth investing in. This kind of thinking carries the undertone of “Beware! If you do something to lose my trust, then its all over!”
Instead of investing in a paradigm that is so weak, I would rather invest in a belief system that supports something of lasting value. Of a system that can support a heavy load of “transactions” that can bridge short term indiscretions, weaknesses, and imperfections found in ordinary everyday imperfect people.
Personally, I believe that trust is something that is freely given; not earned.
Offering trust in this manner means being somewhat vulnerable and acting on faith in the ability of others to do their best given the context. This type of thinking takes courage. It takes strength. It takes an ability to handle failure. And yet, it is still worth all of it.
For the leader-follower relationship to really work, trust must exist in an open and unpredictable environment that allows it to grow strong. It cannot be wimpy. If a person is always afraid of losing someones trust, they may be overly cautious and never comfortable enough to perform at the highest levels.
The trust that exists has to be one of open discussion. This will inevitably invite the occasional respectful conflict. In this type of environment, individuals need to be mentally and emotionally prepared to be vulnerable, compassionate, empathetic, and kind. It is an occasionally bruising place, but it is well worth the effort.
Seth Godin speaks to a similar concept in his blog about Trust and Respect. Although the context of Seth’s Blog focuses on Marketing and Sales, the concepts about trust are the same. Seth offers some disheartening observations about the level of trust in today’s current environment with this characterization: “If the contract doesn’t specifically spell out how one company will treat another, it’s okay to rip the other off as long as there’s a loophole.”
It seems that in some organizations, leaders have adopted a similar approach to their followers. There are any number of examples where employers have shown their lack of integrity in honoring severance agreements and pension plans while paying high salaries and bonuses to current employees.
And this begs a question…If trust were based on a transaction — wouldn’t this approach ensure that employees/partners/client NEVER trust the organization?
Trust is NOT a transaction. It simply can’t be in order to exist.
Are you experiencing low levels of trust in your organization due to a transactional mindset on the topic? Are you guilty of hording your trust becasue of past incidences? Are you open to giving and building an environmrnt that is built on trust? I would love to hear your stories!
Dr. David DeHaven is Executive Coach & Business Strategist at D3 Coaching.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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