Obstacles to Engagement #1: Trust Defined to Disempower




In the “world according to me”, engagement is defined as “association by choice.”  To choose is often defined as, ‘to select freely, after consideration.’ Anything that stands in the way of associating freely is then an obstacle. When trust is construed in such a way as to place the burden of responsibility outside oneself then by definition we have made trust an obstacle to engagement.

Can you imagine being at work, in any workplace, and not trusting people? I don’t necessarily mean specific people, I mean people in general. Unfortunately, I think many of us are unconscious of our biases in this regard, having “handy stories” justifying behavior that might otherwise be considered paranoid. I think you know the stories I mean, they usually include some element of “well you can never be too careful,” or “if you want something done right do it yourself.” Both of these are versions of how to avoid depending on or trusting others. These “stories” do a major job of invisibly undermining accountability in any organization. Put in the simplest terms, no trust = no accountability. So let’s take a closer look at trust in a way that opens space for accountability.

“Trust is more an attitude about myself, an estimate of my own capacities, my own ability to handle whatever comes up. If I do not trust someone, … , a more accurate statement might be that I am not happy with the way I act or feel when I am around this person.  It is my sense of being out of control that bothers me…”                                            Peter Block

 Preparing for this post, it occurred to me that for many thoughtful people there are three truths about trust and no common definition. The three truths are:

1.       If I trust, I can count on being disappointed.

2.       If I do not trust, my life will likely be safe but it will feel more like surviving than thriving.

3.       If I am up to anything of consequence—anything that will really make any difference—then I will need the involvement of others. Therefore, trusting is a foregone conclusion: I will trust or I will accomplish very little in this lifetime.

With the above three truths in mind, I would do well to establish a tolerance for disappointment. If this sounds paradoxical to you I empathize. It appears that there is always a paradox to be dealt with where trust is involved, if I insist on defining trust as having anything to do with someone other than myself!

In my experience, most people I encounter do offer their definition of trust in terms of the behaviors of others. While there is considerable power in defining trust in reference to oneself, this "conventional reality" is neglected at great personal peril. The subjective reality concerning trust is dealt with masterfully in TRUST AGENTS: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust.*

*(Kevin Eikenberry provides a timely review of this book in his post of February 15 and his blog, Leadership and Learning, merits a regular visit from readers who subscribe to this site.)

In contrast to the conventional practice, as I read hundreds of quotes from "fairly famous/successful" people to prepare for this article, a single insight became clear: there is no power in any definition of trust that depends on the behavior of others. None of these “famous/successful people” defined trust as having anything to do with anyone other than himself or herself.

 Consider this:

 A definition of trust that generates power is a function of my relationship with myself.

  •  Do I have the confidence in myself to deal with whatever comes my way?
  • Can I interact successfully with various personalities?
  • Can I have direct reports who clearly have superior subject knowledge to my own?
  • Can I work for a manager who can see clearly my limitations and openly accept coaching?
  • Can I willingly depend on colleagues who’s knowledge and skill I need?
  • Can I honor my intentions when interacting with people of differing agendas?
  • And most importantly, can I count on myself to respond and deliver without excuses even when someone has let me down?

This self-referential perspective on trust gives me reason to think that I can be effective no matter what and no matter who is involved. I say perspective because after reading all those quotes I concluded that trust, like we often say about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. By adopting this perspective I place the responsibility for trust in my own lap. My power comes from the fact that there never was anything I could do about the behavior of others except to ask for what I wanted and hold them to account for what they said they would do.

I was blessed to have a manager who operated in this fashion early in my career. I made mistakes and each time he dealt with the situation gracefully and responsibly. If he had delegated something to me and it did not get done well he always held himself to account for having allowed me the opportunity to either meet his expectations, or let him down. This is not to say that he did not hold me to account; he did, and from our discussions around my accountabilities I learned from my mistakes. With him there was never any concern for being "thrown under the bus." We sank or swam together and as an outcome I was able to gain the confidence of other senior managers at a very young age. His trusting that he could deal with whatever mistake I might make allowed me the freedom to bring the best I had to offer and rapidly learn what worked and what did not. Of course, like any truly great manager his trust in me cost him in the end; I was promoted and moved on. And of course, he trusted that whoever took my place would eventually be exactly what he needed, until they moved on as well.

Where have you abdicated your responsibility for trust? When will you take it back?



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