Trusted and Respected Leadership — without the side-order of manipulation?

Understanding trust helps us benefit from it, whilst avoiding the dangers.

Trust is dangerous!

Trusting makes us vulnerable to others. Consider some of the greatest scandals of recent years — business scandals such as VW’s emissions fraud or the collapse of Carillion, or the sexual misconduct scandals in media and arts organisations. These abuses were made possible by the trust placed in those who then betrayed it in devastating ways. It would have been better if they had not been trusted.

More trust is not always better.

This should be a dash of cold water in the face of the current consensus about trust — that it is a marvellous thing, and we should be trying to restore trust, build trust, earn trust, and generally make trust spring up wherever we can. That can’t be right.

Of course, it doesn’t mean the clichés are false. Everyone wants to be trusted and respected, especially leaders. Everyone wants to be in a team of people characterised by mutual trust and respect. We can’t check everything out personally, or do everything ourselves. Trusting one another appropriately is crucial for getting things done. Higher levels of trust have been shown to enable people to work more effectively together, to feel more motivated and less anxious, and to thrive both as individuals and collectively. And this holds true in a family, a team, an organisation, and across a society.

No doubt, we do have a crisis of trust. In 2018, trust in government has taken a huge hit in the US. Trust in directors and CEOs of businesses remains just above 40% (Edelman). That’s a huge problem. We humans let people down. And once trust has been broken, it is hard to build back up again.

But organisational leaders also need to beware of building trust.

The leaders involved in many of those recent scandals built trust. They deliberately cultivated a trusting environment, and especially trust in themselves. Cultivating trust is often part of how flawed leaders manipulate people and organisations to their own ends. Trusting means not checking. Thus, in some cases, cultivating trust is a deliberate ploy to hide wrongdoing, in other cases trust itself brings an impunity that tempts leaders into wrongdoing.

Trust without manipulation?

So, when should we be prepared to trust, and when should we withhold it?

And — for leaders — when and how should we cultivate trust, or accept it when offered? When is it manipulative to try to cultivate trust?

These are not easy questions.

Should we only foster trust from others where we know we can deliver on it? That seems plausible, until we realise that sometimes we most need others to trust us in situations of uncertainty, where we can’t be confident we’ll be able to deliver. Military life is full of such situations — a company commander needs the troops’ confidence in her plan and leadership to get them through safely, even if she herself is in the dark. She needs them to trust her, because without that trust, they will not work well together, and are certain to fail. And organisational life abounds with such cases too — an organisation threatened with collapse will avoid it best if its staff can be brought to trust that it will succeed: its leaders need to cultivate that trust, but may have scant grounds for doing so.

Trust, also, is something that you may want, but can’t easily ask for! The clearer it is that you are seeking for people to trust you, the more likely they are to withhold trust from you. Overtly cultivating trust looks like the mark of the manipulator. It is the snake oil salesman that says, “trust me!”

Reflective, responsible leaders might in fact be reluctant to cultivate trust where they can’t be confident they can live up to it, and because of the temptations that come with unchecked discretion. And worries about undeserved or excessive trust can be especially pressing where someone has a naturally warm manner that seems to attract trust magnetically.

Can current academic literature help?

Recent academic literature on trust gives us some help in making progress.

Social science research confirms a correlation between a high-trust environment and high productivity and favourable (economic) outcomes.

Philosophical research helps us understand why more trust isn’t always better. Misplaced trust is dangerous — trusting the untrustworthy — and this highlights why we are right to be cautious about cultivating trust where we feel we do not merit it. And blind trust is generally foolhardy. Most of the time, the kind of trust we want is evidence-based trust, the sort that is formed on the basis of good reasons for thinking that someone is trustworthy. Trust will always carry risks of betrayal, but it can be earned, justified, and carefully placed.

Philosophical analysis of the concept of “trustworthiness” also yields vital insights. Trustworthiness is specific (I trust my colleague to alert me to my mistakes, but not to fix the computer), and it involves competence and right motivation. Sometimes we don’t trust people because we think they are not capable of (say) planning the organisation’s finances, and sometimes it is because we think they will not care about them in the right way, perhaps neglecting things that we would consider very important.

What else?

Still, these insights need to be applied. What is the relevant kind and level of “competence” and “motivation” in a given situation? How much evidence of trustworthiness is enough? How should we take account of the so-called “cunning of trust” — the human tendency to become more trustworthy simply by being trusted?

And these existing insights need to be built upon further. Getting us all to place trust only where it is warranted, and getting influential people to cultivate trust accordingly is good. But it is not the whole answer. Even where trust is well-placed, there can still be too much of it. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Stevens the butler trusts his aristocratic master to tell him how to vote and what views to take on the political issues of the day. Even if his master is a reliable guide on these matters, i.e. trustworthy, this is too much trust. Too much trust can degrade competence and engagement, and create an environment that is too uncritical and open to mistakes and abuse.

Careful inter-disciplinary applied work on the ethics of placing and cultivating trust has never been more relevant or more urgently needed. And it is particularly needed by those in leadership positions for whom the placing and cultivation of trust and respect is mission-critical.