Trust Is Overrated

In New England we don’t trust anyone. Collaboration is an unnatural act. No wonder the region is economically stagnant. I’ve been thinking a lot about trust. All we hear and read about is how trust is the missing ingredient for all that ails the world. If I had a dollar for every trust fall I’ve taken at leadership development workshops over the years! If only we just trusted each other more. I’m not buying it. I wonder how many things we don’t try together because we only collaborate with people we trust. Is it possible we set the standard so high for a trusted relationship that it prevents collaboration? What if trust is overrated?

I know the trust police will be all over me for writing this. Bring it. I understand the importance of establishing and maintaining trust for the really big, risk laden, decisions we make like choosing a life partner or quitting a cushy corporate job and taking out a second mortgage to launch a startup with a partner. But those aren’t the choices we make every day. What we do every day is make choices about who we collaborate with to get stuff done. Applying the same hurdle of trust to both major and everyday interaction choices is getting in the way of collaborative innovation and getting better faster.

There are four types of people in the world when it comes to trust. The four types have to do with our starting disposition when we interact with someone, to either trust or distrust them at the start, and whether our disposition changes when the people we interact with behave differently than we expect. Which of the following four types of trusting dispositions best describes how you enter into new interactions?

1) Trust Until

Even though I don’t know you yet I will give you the benefit of the doubt and trust you until you behave in a way that is untrustworthy. From that point forward I will distrust you until you can convince me that you are worthy of trusting again. It gets progressively more difficult for me to regain trust in you with each untrustworthy act. It’s a shame that there are so many untrustworthy people in the world because I really would like to trust more people.

2) Trust Still

Whether you’re trustworthy or not I will always choose to trust. How you behave is your choice. I can only control my own behavior and I choose to trust always regardless of the risk I might be burned by untrustworthy individuals and behavior. Call me naïve or Pollyanna if you want but your behavior doesn’t alter my disposition to trust.

3) Distrust Until

We don’t know each other and I have no basis to decide not to trust you but I start from a position of distrust and will only come to trust you once I’m convinced that you have met my standard for being trustworthy. When you demonstrate that you can be trusted to my satisfaction I reserve the right to distrust you again at any time that I deem your behavior untrustworthy.

4) Distrust Still

I’m sure you’re a nice person and may very well be trustworthy but I choose never to trust. It’s not about you, it’s my choice, there’s just too much untrustworthy behavior in the world and I choose not to be vulnerable. No matter how trustworthy you are and how hard you work to prove it to me I will always distrust.

It would be fascinating to do research to validate and quantify this segmentation, any behavior economists out there? Based solely on my life experience and observation I would say the percentage of the population falling into each type breaks down something like this.

OK, maybe my percentages are biased because I live in New England where we take pride in our world-class cynicism! But if my estimates are even close it’s no wonder we don’t collaborate more and aren’t realizing the potential of the 21st century. Innovation is a team sport. It requires collaboration. It requires us to collide with more unusual suspects. If we only collaborate when trust conditions are met we won’t combine and recombine our capabilities to their fullest potential.

Trust shouldn’t be a prerequisite for deciding with whom we work, share, and collaborate. If someone brings new insights, capabilities, and a compatible working style, collaborate away. If we only collaborate with people we trust we will only do stuff with the usual suspects in our inner circles. We won’t transform anything that way. We live in a time that screams for transformation and it would be a shame if we let trust issues get in the way of collaborating more.