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Thinking About Trust

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Thinking About Trust

Trust in other people is one of the foundations for creating a civilized working environment. Many managers are overworked primarily because of a lack of trust. They take on too much themselves, because they don’t trust their subordinates to do the work properly. They cannot allocate enough time to their own work, because they don’t believe people will put in the required time without constant supervision. They attend pointless meetings and read futile cc’d e-mails, because they don’t trust their colleagues not to knife them in the back. And they pile up extra tasks, because they don’t trust suppliers not to cheat them, and customers to stay loyal or resist the temptations put before them by competitors.

In an environment that lacks trust, everyone feels suspicious of everyone else. The subliminal message that runs constantly in the background is to put one over on the other guy before he or she manages to do it to you. Friendly greetings are scanned for evidence of a hidden agenda. It’s almost a relief to face a truly nasty, hostile person, because at least you know where you stand with them.

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Then there’s self-trust: the belief in your own ability to find your way through life and come out more or less where you would like to be. If you don’t trust yourself, it’s hard to develop any trust in others either. That gnawing, internal fear that you’ll probably screw up transfers itself to a suspicion that the other guy is probably waiting to gloat when you do. Lack of self-trust is behind a great deal of the dogmatic and rigid thinking that characterizes so many organizational leaders. If you don’t trust yourself to get it right on your own, the simplest way to avoid embarrassment is to lay down sets of rules and demand obedience to them. It prevents you from needing to find an answer that fits the current circumstances—which you fear you won’t be able to do—and allows you to get off the hook of trusting your own judgment. After all, if things go wrong, the rules were to blame, not you. People who lack self-trust have an extra need to be right all the time to allay their inner feelings of anxiety. In reality, while being right is nice, in the long run it’s more important to learn to trust your own intelligence and judgment than it is to be right every time.

Lack of trust is a symptom of fear. W. Edwards Deming, mostly remembered as the father of the Total Quality movement, said that the primary duty of every leader is to remove fear from the workplace. Yet today fear seems more present, and more powerful, than ever. Managing by fear is ubiquitous, whether it appears as straightforward bullying and dictatorial behavior, or more indirectly through constant reminders that everyone’s job is on the line and those who fail to deliver what is demanded will likely find themselves holding pink slips.

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Where fear and mistrust rule, there can be no happiness, no enjoyment, no creativity, and no sense of meaning in working life. All there will be is suspicion, anxiety, constant pressure, and the belief that protecting your own butt while kicking someone else’s is what work is all about.

Surely it’s time to wake up and see that living like this, however much money is made in the process, is no kind of living at all.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership. He also posts at The Coyote Within.

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