Trust? Screw that.

Most organizational experts list Trust as an important element of optimally performing teams.  Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests, “Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people.” In Trust Rules: How to Tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys in Work and Life, Linda Stroh acknowledges that “betrayal is bad for everyone” and “without organizational trust, the focus of every transaction revolves around issues of determining who has control and ensuring no one gets more than that to which they’re entitled.”  Pick your favorite leadership guru, “trust” is all over their work.  It’s important, I get it.  But I say it’s also idealistic.

I told my wife last night that, “I would absolutely love my job if it weren’t for this one person.”  That one person happens to be some one who has betrayed and abused my trust one time too many.  But here’s the problem: 1) He/she has an important role in the organization so he/she isn’t going anywhere any time soon, 2) I’ve tried to address the trust issue head on with him/her to no avail, 3) It’s really hard to play the role of unbiased HR professional when the issues you’re addressing relate to a peer who shares a boss with you.  It’s that third issue that brings me to my first recommendation to HR leaders out there: Have an explicit agreement with your boss on who your HR representative is in the event you need one.  It may be another HR leader, it may be corporate counsel, it may even be an HR representative who reports to you.  Either way, it should be agreed in advance that by using said representative you deliberately separate yourself from your role as HR advisor and take on the role of employee.  With that understanding you should feel more comfortable getting the same kind of support on your issues that you are dedicated to providing the rest of the company.  Here’s my next recommendation: Screw Trust! Trust is for people you love, for people who love you.  Trust is for people your livelihood depends upon.  Trust is for people who actually matter.  But trust in the workplace is fleeting.  Yes, you should strive to be trustworthy; but unless you are a firefighter, a soldier, or a trapeze artist it’s naive to count on others to be trustworthy.  Sorry, it just is.  Try to give the benefit of the doubt, stay optimistic, have faith, have respect, strive to understand, build strong working relationships.  But keep a healthy sense of skepticism about any one and every one.  Don’t become paralyzed by paranoia, but watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing.  I’m here to tell you: workplaces are not designed for trustworthiness…trust me on this.

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7 Responses to Trust? Screw that.
  1. Jane
    February 10, 2010 | 5:39 pm

    Hi Charlie,
    This post is powerful and really effected me. Thank you so much for writing it. I have been dealing with serious trust issues with my boss and it has gotten so bad that I finally needed to look for a new position. I found one internally, which she tried to sabotage, and luckily her comments didn’t amount to more than a way for me to have an open discussion with my new boss about the kind of leadership I need and want. I got the new job and am thrilled, but my trust issues with my old boss have really damaged my self-esteem and confidence. I’m trying to put them aside as I begin this new position, but in reading your post I discovered a really important lesson: people in the workplace aren’t always our friends and we can’t and shouldn’t necessarily trust them. I’m open-minded about my new boss, but certainly weary of trusting her too much. I’ve learned my lesson all too clearly with my former supervisor. Trust in the workplace has sadly left the building.

  2. Steve Browne
    February 10, 2010 | 10:14 pm

    Charlie – Thanks for being candid, bold and edgy !! Too often trust is thrown in people’s faces vs. being a natural part of who they are. I’m glad you took this on and I hope others in corporate environments look at this perspective and quit throwing “trust” around as a catch phrase !!

  3. Mike Powell
    February 11, 2010 | 10:06 am

    Charlie – I appreciate the comments that many HR professionals have contemplated but did not put them on the table. For those of use in human resources, we have seen this via a number of scenarios – managers who follow the mantra “do as I say not as I do”; CEO’s who are a deer in the headlights when HR brings these concerns to their attention about their reports and hopes you will take care of it for them; training that is provided to manager’s about doing the “right things” and then go out and do just the opposite. Then at the end of the day, the finger gets pointed at HR if the fire fighting plea doesn’t make it go away.

    In many ways this falls in the same bucket as employee surveys, the employer asks the question but then is shocked to hear the answer and wants to start putting skulls on the door. Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer.

  4. Jennifer
    February 11, 2010 | 12:13 pm

    Great post. Let’s be honest, we all would like to trust our bosses and co-workers, but the reality is many of us don’t and probably for good reason. It’s too bad you can’t figure out during the interview process whether you can trust the people you will be working with. Maybe, just maybe, people wouldn’t accept that job where the people seem so nice.

  5. Amy
    April 23, 2010 | 8:31 am

    Charlie – Thanks for being candid, bold and edgy !! Too often trust is thrown in people’s faces vs. being a natural part of who they are. I’m glad you took this on and I hope others in corporate environments look at this perspective and quit throwing “trust” around as a catch phrase !!

  6. Janet
    July 6, 2010 | 9:51 am

    I’m late to comment, but stumbled across this post and was struck by how the fact that the trust mantra in the workplace is counter to one of the key lessons smart parents teach their kids: trust is EARNED. A healthy skepticism keeps us safe from those who either mean us harm or who might not intentionally hurt us but are only out to serve their own interests in the long run. It is NOT warranted just by the fact that people happen to work together — no matter how often your manager or anyone else in your professional sphere may try to tell you otherwise. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt means that you don’t immediately assume bad motives, but it also means that your jury is still out until more evidence of trustworthiness (or not) is in.

  1. Trust Is Not Blind Faith — hr bartender
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