Over the past month, I seriously breached the trust of three people I care about, and my trust was broken five times. Yes, I counted. And none of those felt good. And only a couple were justifiable. Most of those relationships will survive, but the damage on a few may prove irreparable.
Trust has been a big topic for me over the past couple of years, both in my personal and professional life. The funny thing about trust is that it is so essential for all our relationships, but until there is a severe breach, we hardly ever think about it. But once it comes into the field of your attention, you start to notice how fragile and complex it actually is.
To trust is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “to believe that someone is good and honest and will not harm you, or that something is safe and reliable.” It is at the core of our capacity to truly connect with others personally and cooperate, negotiate, and resolve conflicts at the workplace. Yet trust is risky as it leaves you vulnerable and exposed to the possibility of betrayal. And ever since we learned that all those Christmas’s it was the neighbor Ivan who was dressing up as Santa Claus, we know that even our closest people may sometimes be not worthy of our trust.
How Do We Build And Maintain Trust
As social beings, humans are wired for trust, and our brains have a specific mechanism that enables trusting behavior. Through a series of experiments, the neuroeconomist Paul Zak demonstrated that our brain releases oxytocin (the neurotransmitter associated with love and attachment) when we display trust towards someone. The person on the receiving end also releases oxytocin which makes them both more trusting and more trustworthy. Which creates a “virtuous circle” proliferating trust. And all we need to do to get the ball rolling is give an initial credit of trust.
I find this truly fascinating and enlightening. Unfortunately, real life is much more complex than a lab experiment. At the workplace, multiple other factors impact our behavior, such as our past experience, the competing goals that we are trying to achieve, the limited resources that need to be distributed, workplace politics and many others.
If we are provided this initial credit of trust by our team members, manager or peers, there is a lot we need to do to maintain it.
- Be open and honest – our words matter. And it is crucial that we communicate clearly and transparently. And yes, this does include admitting when you screwed up and sharing unpleasant truths and feedback.
- Be reliable – be someone who walks the talk, cooperates, and whom people turn for support.
- Show respect to others – praise their successes, acknowledge their efforts and value their opinions even if they differ from yours
- Be courageous – this is especially important for building and maintaining trust with your team as a manager. They need to know that you would be willing and able to fight for them and protect them.
And How Do We Break Trust?
But there are also many things we can do to breach the trust others have given us. And I can vouch that we don’t always acknowledge or notice some of them. Yet, they can have a detrimental effect on the trust and our professional and personal relationships.
- Lie – this is probably the first thing that comes to mind when we think about a breach of trust. At the workplace, some lies can be very impactful and cause considerable losses or even litigation – such as fraud or embezzlement. But honestly, what irks me most are the small lies that are brought on by fear and unwillingness to admit mistakes. Especially when those come from someone I look up to and rely on, such as a leader or a partner. They show me not only that this person is not truthful with me but that they lack the courage to own up for a failure. And that is definitely a relationship-breaker for me.
- Take advantage of vulnerability – showing vulnerability is fundamental for building lasting and trustful relationships. It takes a lot of courage and determination. Therefore, it is very hurtful and devastating for the trust between you when someone uses your vulnerability to clobber you and bring you down.
- Be aggressive, dismissive or condescending – in short – be disrespectful. We are all taught that we need to be assertive to achieve our professional goals and provide honest feedback to help others improve. But there are some situations when we try to pass off our aggression as assertiveness and our disrespect as feedback. And that kills trust.
- Not keeping your commitments – cooperation in the workplace depends on all parties. If you expect others to hold to their commitments, but you don’t keep your end of the bargain, you quickly lose their trust.
- Withholding information or going over someone’s head – information is the main currency in our work life today. Keeping someone out of the conversation, excluding them from decisions or not sharing information they need to do their job will severely affect their faith in you and their willingness to continue cooperating.
- Cheat – in the workplace, this may mean not following a process or misuse of influence or displaying only a partial picture to the powers that be to sway their decisions
- Place blame and point fingers – things sometimes go wrong. Mistakes are made, miscommunications occur, or results are not achieved. These are often situations that cause a lot of stress and tension anyways. And when someone starts looking for blame rather than a solution, we quickly realize that this is not a partner we want by our side when we are in the trenches of trying to achieve all the thousand tasks we have on our plate.
- Inability to handle conflict or disagreement – we all know such individuals (sadly, I have been one of them on more than one occasion) who react very strongly to any controversy or negative feedback. They constantly hold the severance of the relationship as a threat over your head, and over time you start feeling that you always need to agree with them or behave the way they want you to in order to maintain it. Gradually, you start withdrawing and stop being completely open with them just so you can keep the peace. This can be very exhausting and is not sustainable for more extended periods.
Even though I consider myself a trustworthy and cooperative person, I have done many of those on more than one occasion (and if you are frank with yourself, you will see you have, too). And all of them have been done to me. And when I look back, I notice that, interestingly, the same act has on various occasions been perceived differently and has had a different effect on my relationship with the other person. And that I may have forgiven a significant breach of the process by one person easier than a small lie from another.
Why Is It That Not All Breaches of Trust Affect Us Equally?
The concept I found most helpful in explaining these irregularities to myself was Stephen Covey’s “emotional bank account.” In his book “The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People.” he describes it as an account of trust rather than money. And just like with a regular bank account, we can make deposits and withdrawals. And just like with a standard bank account, if we withdraw more than we deposit, the account will run dry, and the relationship will crumble.
We make deposits when we display trust and trustworthiness by being kind, respectful, cooperating, and supporting. And we withdraw with any of the behaviors that breach trust we described above.
This concept helped me understand better some of the most draining personal and professional relationships I have had. In them, the other person made deposits rarely and sparingly but often made withdrawals and expected me to be ok with it. Since these were not relationships that I could easily break (after all, we can’t always choose who to work with), I tried to make up for the missing balance on my own – finding excuses and justifications for them, hoping that their behavior will change in the future. But I was never quite able to recover the missing positive investments fully, and over time I felt utterly depleted.
What these people most likely did not understand was that unlike in regular bank accounts, here withdrawals weigh more than deposits. So if you want to maintain the trust and relationship, you should always make more deposits than withdrawals.
To make it even more complicated, behaviors mean different things to different people. So a tiny lie that you consider harmless may make a huge dent in your bank account with a person that values honesty above all else. Therefore, it is imperative to know the other person and their values and manage your mutual bank accounts accordingly.
So we discussed how to build trust and how to maintain it, but when we think about our work life, another question pops up:
Should We Always Be Trustworthy?
Relationships are undoubtedly essential both in the workplace and outside. But at work, we also need to achieve results, meet deadlines, negotiate for limited resources, resolve conflicts, manage change. So what is the most efficient way to achieve all these when looking through the prism of trust?
A colleague introduced me to the game “The Evolution of Trust”. Since then, I played it by myself, then with the managers on my team. Other teams played it as well. We all found it very insightful, and as a consequence, we have been talking about trust a LOT in the past few weeks.
The game is an excellent visualization of the game theory of trust and can be the foundation of many insights and discussions. But the thing that struck a chord with me the most was the various trust-related behavior styles in a group of people or organizations and the most successful ones under different circumstances.
There are many personas in the game with very different behaviors when it comes to trust, but I will outline here just the few that I have encountered most often in my work life:
- The person who always cooperates – many of us have been this person at the beginning of our careers. We believe that organizations and people should be fair, and if we are good to people, they will always be good to us. Even if they are disloyal to us, we continue to cooperate with them and follow the rules hoping that good always wins. And if we live in Paul Zak’s lab, it definitely would. In our actual workplace, though, there will be many situations in which others will take advantage of us, and our cooperation will not lead to the desired results.
- The person who never cooperates – we have all worked with such individuals for whom the goal justifies the means. They do not care about building and maintaining trust and relationships but only about achieving their own objectives. Often such people can be very successful for a while and achieve higher results than others. However, eventually, if the organization has proper mechanisms of rewarding desired behaviors, they will be either isolated by their colleagues or identified as toxic and removed.
- There is also the person who holds a grudge – they start with giving credit of trust and will continue to cooperate until the other party breaches the confidence they have given them. After that, they will never trust again and will themselves behave in an untrustworthy manner. In my experience, these are individuals who hold a very high standard of trustworthiness for themselves and subsequently others. Thus it is tough for them to forgive any missteps.
- The “live and let live” approach – these are individuals who believe in reciprocity – if you trust them, they will trust you; if you break their trust, they will break yours. This “an eye for an eye” approach is very effective according to the theory behind the Evolution of Trust game as it allows the person to build trusting and cooperative relationship and at the same time does not let them fall prey to the people who are willing to break any rules to achieve their goals.
And if we lived in the clean-cut Old Testament world where everything was black and white, this would be the way to go. But our world is a lot more ambiguous. And the more virtual it gets, the more it is prone to errors and miscommunication. Because behaviors that lead to a breach of trust are not always intentional. Sometimes they may be the result of a mistake.
And “The Evolution of Trust” game is telling us that to be successful in achieving our professional goals, we need to reciprocate the behaviors of others, but also give them an initial benefit of the doubt in case they made a mistake before responding in kind.
But a word of caution from me – don’t give too many second chances. People get used to you forgiving them, and in the end, when you reach your limit and stop cooperating, they will feel as if you are the one who betrayed them. So if a hurtful or harmful behavior repeats itself more than a couple of times, better respond and don’t let things go again.
What Is The Organization’s Influence On The Complexities Of Trust?
As we saw, trust is complex enough on an interpersonal level, but when you take a step out and look at it on an organizational level, things become even trickier.
As we already mentioned, communication errors can lead to many unintentional breaches of trust. And organizations that do not have clear rules and processes established channels of communication and defined expectations towards behaviors and information flow risk creating an environment that does not foster trust. In such environments, even if the employees initially have the desire to give credit of faith and build trusting relationships, they will soon give up because all their efforts will be diluted in the noise of miscommunication.
It is also essential to note that successful behaviors replicate. Employees look at their colleagues who got that promotion or bonus, at the leader who sits at the top of their organization and at the peers who are being publicly praised. They then try to emulate the behaviors that seem to make those people successful. So if you have a leader who lies, you will have a dishonest workforce. If you salute the achievements of an employee who treats their colleagues as a bully, you can expect a lot of aggressive and rude communication in the future.
Therefore, the trust within an organization very much depends on the behaviors it tends to reward.
I have worked in a company where trust and cooperation did not matter. The only valued behavior was to achieve the best results possible, no matter the cost. Looking for win-win solutions was not something that the leadership encouraged or recognized (it takes more time and effort, which we constantly told ourselves we did not have. And it required a long-term focus in an organization that strived for immediate results).
To be honest, for a while, I thrived in this environment. My inclination to cooperate made me a desirable partner, and any time I had to reciprocate the untrustworthy behavior of others, this was accepted as normal. But it was exhausting. It felt as if I was living in one of those zombie apocalypse movies where I constantly had to look over my shoulder, and I never knew which corner will hide someone who will jump out and bite my head off.
I have also worked in organizations where trust seemed to be valued or encouraged on the surface, but unfair practices and behaviors that breached trust were not denounced or punished and sometimes were even rewarded. This gave a very mixed message to the employees, leaving them confused as to what is the approach that will bring them success.
Another type of covertly boycotting trusting behaviors organizations often engage in is shutting down conflict and disagreement. Negative feedback or expression of negative emotions is avoided or actively squashed. Which causes employees to withdraw and disengage as they do not feel that they will be understood or supported.
And I have also heard of organizations that have realized the importance of trust and are ardently implementing practices that will increase trust within. And those are the ones who win in the end. Because as Paul Zak (who got out of the lab and started talking to people to expand on his research of trust) discovered that employees at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.
And I think that this seems to be something worth investing in. How about you?