To Trust or Not To Trust

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.”

Chekhov’s words have always resonated with me. And yet, I often encounter leaders whose mantra is that trust must be earned.

In the cut-and-thrust of corporate life my turning to a Russian writer didn’t always carry sufficient gravitas. It was the ‘nice-to-have’ fluffy stuff of life, but then there was the ‘reality’ of running a business – or so the narrative went.

Nonetheless, my intuition remained that it is a leader’s duty to create trust, but I didn’t have the language to explain why. And so, it was a great relief to discover famed business strategist, researcher, and author Jim Collins speaking about trust.

Strategy

Collins’ reflections on trust are in this nearly three-hour long podcast interview with Tim Ferriss.

The reason for the podcast was that Collins has recently released an updated version of his first book, Beyond Entrepreneurship. The new volume is called, unsurprisingly, BE 2.0 (Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0): Turning Your Business into an Enduring Great Company. It is clear that Collins and Ferriss enjoy each other’s company because they meander across a whole array of topics, often disappearing down a side-path for ten or fifteen minutes before popping back on to the main trail. If you’re keen to get the insights from the new book, go to the 1h55 mark (yep!) and listen for the next 40 minutes or so.

Collins had reissued the book both to update it with the results of his last thirty years of rigorous research on what makes companies great, and as a tribute to his co-author and mentor, Bill Lazier.

Collins tells Ferriss of a conversation that he had with Lazier about trust.

He had recently left Stanford and was building his own venture, and had a number of people abuse his trust, so he went to Lazier and asked his view.

Lazier told him that there are two stances that one could take. The first is that people are trustworthy, that you sought to explain mistakes through reasons other than malicious intent, and trust was only lost in the context of clear evidence that they were untrustworthy. He did give a pragmatic caveat, ensure that if your trust is broken that it won’t result in a catastrophic loss. The second stance is the one that we are familiar with, trust must be earned.

Lazier’s own perspective was that the first was more powerful. His explanation to Collins provided me with the language that I had been missing for so long.

He said to Collins, “Look, Jim, think of it as upside and downside. Here’s the wager: ‘What’s the upside?’ If you take the position of mistrust, well, you’ll maybe prevent yourself from having one of those hurtful experiences. And what’s the downside? The downside is trustworthy people. You will lose them. And the upside to trusting people is when you find trustworthy people, they will rise to it.”

And Collins reflected that Lazier went on to give him another critical insight, he said: “Have you ever considered the possibility, Jim, that not everybody is one or the other, but because you trust them at that outset, they are more likely to become trustworthy because you trust them.”

And there it was, my intuition that had come from years of leading team affirmed by two of the world’s greatest strategists, and it comes down to this. If your opening position is one of mistrust, you lose your most powerful asset – trustworthy people. And even more staggeringly, if you start with mistrust, then that’s what people will give you.

To be sure there’ll be times that your trust is betrayed, but as long as you have the guardrails in place to ensure that it is not catastrophic, the upside of having the full engagement of trustworthy people far outweighs the downside of the occasional betrayal.

Self

As I reflected on this conversation it struck me that we often speak about trust as if it is self-evident how one builds it, but in truth, it’s not always evident how one can do so.

Marc Lesser in Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader cites Google research, identifying three practical steps one can take.

First, you build trust through giving your time and being present, “take the time to meet with each person on the team and act as a coach, which involves both building trust with and also challenging each team member. A good leader demonstrates real care for each person and for their career development.”

Second, you empower; “A good leader empowers the team and avoids micromanaging — guiding and supporting the team, trusting the team to do what’s required, and providing the team with a good deal of freedom.”

Third, you listen; “A good leader creates an inclusive environment and shows concern for both success and well-being by listening to each team member. A good leader brings awareness to any inherent tensions between the team’s success, the company’s success, and the individual’s well-being and finds ways to resolve them and support success on all levels”.

Soul

In May, the New York Times published a fascinating story about a group of researchers who are questioning whether or not anyone has ever made it to the summit of the world’s 14, 8,000 meter peaks.

The researchers have been using the latest in technology to pinpoint the spot on the peaks that is the ‘exact’ summit.

They explain that “of the 14 8,000-meter peaks, six or seven are ripe for false summits. The difference is a vertical meter or two in some places, no more than about 20 in others. Those few vertical meters might be an hour’s hike — or a dangerous straddle and scooch — away.”

In other words, climbers may legitimately think that they’d summitted, only to be a few meters away from the ‘actual’ summit.

It struck me as a fascinating debate between value systems. For the lead researcher, Eberhard Jurgalski, it is an exact point. For others, not so much.

Famous climber Ed Viesturs notes that “it is called climbing, not summiting. The point is often the process”.

Austrian climbing hero, Reinhold Messner, is blunter, “If they say maybe on Annapurna I got five meters below the summit, somewhere on this long ridge, I feel totally OK. I will not even defend myself. If somebody would come and say, this is all bullshit what you did? Think what you want.”

For my part, I want to trust that for the majority of climbers, who have gone to such extremes, with such courage, that when they say they’ve summited, they have. A GPS reading may show that they were out by a few meters, but that’s not the standard I want to use.

What do you think?

Karl

PS: If this is the first time you’re reading strategy, soul, & self, you can subscribe here. You can follow me on Instagram and LinkedIn.

PPS: You can learn more about my coaching practice here.

(This letter was first published on 26/09/2021)

Strategy, Soul and Self

Register to receive reflections on leadership and life