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When Others Abuse Your Trust

What happens when someone violates your trust? What should you do? What can you do? What works?

Has your trust ever been violated? Did someone, once upon a time, abuse your trust? Have you ever placed your trust in someone or something, only to discover – painfully – that your trust had been misplaced?

Yes, almost certainly, you’ve had experiences like that. And they are unsettling – to say the least. The bottom drops out of something. You feel betrayed. Having been fooled, you feel foolish. You’re left with a pain, a void, a bitterness – and a resolve to do something differently going forward.

But what?

It turns out there are two strategies for dealing with broken trust. And one of them is far worse than the other.

Broken Trust: the Dynamics

Let’s remember what’s going on when trust is broken.

Trust is an asynchronous bilateral relationship. That’s a fancy way of saying that trust consists of a trustor and a trustee. What defines the trustor is the willingness to be vulnerable by taking a risk. What defines the trustee is the response to that vulnerability and that risk.

If the trustee chooses to take advantage of the trustor’s vulnerability by seizing on the risk and turning it to his advantage, then trust is broken, or stalled. If the trustee not only does not take advantage, but also then responds in a similarly vulnerable way (i.e. adopting the role of trustor), then the trust relationship is established, or advanced.

Trust relationships are built by continuous iterations of this risk-taken, risk-respected reciprocal behavior. And trust is broken, or stalled, when one party fails to reciprocate.

Setting up the dynamics of broken trust this way is important, because it allows us to see two ways that trust fails.

  • One is that the trustee abuses the vulnerability of the trustor.
  • The other is that the trustor stops taking risks.

Those Untrustworthy %$#!’s

What do we call those who abuse our trust? Vile, conniving, two-timing hustlers. Lying, two-faced, deceiving charlatans. Con artists, heartbreakers, depraved and immoral cowards. Essentially, we characterize them as lacking in character or virtue.

The implicit problem statement becomes, “How to protect myself from The Untrustworthy?” And the implicit answer is a two-parter:

1. Identify the untrustworthy in advance; and to the extent that is infeasible,

2. Take fewer risks in general.

It’s one thing say, “Never trust Joe again to make the restaurant reservations.” But as humans, we generalize.

  • “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Ergo, don’t trust anyone to make reservations.  Or,
  • “Once burned, shame on you; twice burned, shame on me.” Ergo, don’t trust Joe to do anything.

If you’re a human being, that gets translated into things like, “Don’t trust emails from Nigeria offering inheritances,” or “Beware of strangers who give you candy,” or “Cross the street if you see black teens in hoodies approaching.”

If you’re a company, that translates into things like, “Show me your ID,” or “Sign this non-compete agreement before we hire you,” or “Click here to acknowledge you’ve read the Terms of Service agreement.”

What has happened here?

  • We’ve gone from identifying untrustworthy agents to a wholesale reduction in risk-taking.
  • To prevent bad things from happening, we’ve cut down on the possibility of good things happening.
  • While blaming others for being bad trustees, we cut back on our role as trustors.
  • In the name of increasing the probability of trust (by screening the untrustworthy), we guarantee the reduction of trust (by refusing to play the trustor role).

In fact, this all-too-human response is all-too-common. Ebola? Close the Mexican border. Significant other cheated on you? “I don’t know if I can ever trust again.” Somebody sued you? Demand an indemnification clause in all future supplier contracts.

At a national level, this is why the TSA is what it is: far better we distrust everyone than try to identify the untrustworthy. At a personal level, this is why Twitter and country music are full of ‘done me wrong’ themes – and why they are so popular.

Three-Step Strategy for Dealing with The Untrustworthy

Yes, Virginia, there really is evil in the world, and just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. But it’s also true that we systematically over-estimate the level of danger, and over-react by taking fewer risks.  So here’s the three part solution.

1. Soberly Assess the Risk. So she broke up with you. Get. Over. It. So your pride was hurt; how much is that in dollars and cents? So a customer burned you; what will it cost to bring in the SWAT team to deal with a mosquito?

Pain is inevitable – suffering is optional. Tough cases make bad law. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If it didn’t break your bones, or break your bank account – then really, how much harm was done? And we almost always over-estimate the damage.

It takes thoughtful maturity to not over-react. But trust is a thoughtful, mature relationship; if that were not so, every Neanderthal would be doing it.

2. Name It and Claim It, Then Trust Again. Don’t boil in the juices of your own resentment – explain to the other party what it felt like, and offer them another shot. Remember, the fastest way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.

The highest customer satisfaction ratings come from customer dissatisfaction turned around. The winning strategies in game theory consist of giving people two chances, not one.

Trustworthiness is not solely a static quality, a matter of virtue alone. It is also situational, the result of interactions with a trustor. If you withdraw from the trustor side of the game, you guarantee lower levels of trustworthiness on the other side of the relationship.  (This alone explains much of the dysfunction in the financial services sector).

3. Be Proportional in Your Response. Of course there are bad apples, Bernie Madoffs, and chronic hustlers. But don’t stop dating because of one bad date. Don’t enact protectionist tariff policies to halt one abuse. Don’t put all your employees through lie detector tests because one stole from you.

The tendency to overreact is natural; but the ability to fine-tune our initial instincts is what makes us human. It doesn’t take much in the way of brains or moral courage to shut the barn door after the animals have escaped; it takes both to intelligently assess the situation, and to think it through.

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It’s tempting to view this as just a personal issue, but it’s one of the major trust issues facing corporations. In most Fortune 100 companies, the implicit belief is that the only good risk is a dead risk.  When you hear “risk,” you immediately hear “risk mitigation” and “risk management.” Risk departments are given enormous veto power, and virtually no one challenges corporate lawyers when they pronounce why the company can’t do this or that.

This inability to see risk-taking as the critical, essential role in trust creation is a major reason we don’t trust companies. It belongs right up there with the selfish, zero-sum, Hobbesian, shareholder-value-driven model of the company. If you hear a manager (I’m talking to you, condo association board members) say, “If we did it for you, we’d have to do it for everyone,” you’re talking to someone who not only doesn’t understand trust, they don’t understand management.

If a company doesn’t trust you and me, then we all have very good reason to say, in return – why the hell should we trust you?

Trust, Honesty and Authenticity

A few years ago, Deborah Nixon posted an interesting question on LinkedIn. She asked: “Is there a difference between authenticity and honesty?”

She got about 35 answers. Here’s what I sent in:

Deborah, I’m sure you would agree the two terms cover a lot of territory in common. The trick with these definitional things is not to discover some underlying reality, because there is none; these are conceptual models that help us explain the world. They are good or bad insofar as they help us; so I’d suggest starting there. What’s the most useful way to distinguish the two?

One way might be to say that authenticity is largely passive, and honesty is largely active. When we say someone’s honest, we usually mean they tell the truth, and go out of their way to do it.

Sometimes we also mean that they don’t tell a lie – but that’s far from all the time. You often hear someone way ‘well, he was honest – he didn’t actually tell a lie.’ In such a case, ‘honesty’ just means I didn’t utter an untruth; it’s perfectly consistent with covering up all other kinds of truth. So the casual use of ‘honest’ may rule out sins of commission, but not sins of omission.

That’s why the legal language “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is required in court; to prevent the ‘honest’ witness from conveniently leaving something out, or snow-jobbing the court with irrelevancies.

Authenticity, on the other hand, I think usually implies a lack of attempt to control another’s perception. It means letting others see us as we are, warts and all. I think it also goes one more step: it means letting everyone see us in a way that’s no different from how anyone else see us: that is, we don’t play favorites in terms of constructing alternative fictions to respective people.

At a corporate level, a company might support a claim of honesty by pointing to the truthfulness of its statements, or the lack of court cases against it. Again, ‘honesty’ conveys a sense of ‘never knowingly told an untruth.’ Whether it includes consciously allowing other people to make incorrect inferences by not telling them something – well, that’s not entirely clear.

Authenticity is a whole ‘nother level. It means not hiding out, opening the door in things that are not excluded through standard rules of privacy, letting the chips fall where they may. Further, I think it usually entails a commitment to be authentic, not just a convenient lifestyle.

Seems that of the two, we might say that authenticity is broader (i.e. it encompasses being honest, but goes beyond that to proscribe sins of omission).

On a practical level, people who strive to be honest often talk of it as a struggle: to resist temptation, to not gossip, to say things that can be embarrassing if they are true.

People who choose to be authentic have, in a way, an easier time of it.  For someone who is authentic, the daily default way of life doesn’t involve decisions or will power: the default is openness, there is no issue of control vs. transparency.

Things are what they are, and there is no threat about them.

What’s trust got to do with it?  To trust a person or a company, honesty is table stakes.  If you suspect they’re lying, trust is stopped dead in its tracks.  But even if they’re honest, that’s nothing compared to authentic.

Putting the “I” into “Intimacy”

“Intimacy” belongs in business.  Yes, intimacy. Not the kind that was the subject of classic ‘40s movies, but the kind that is essential to building trust.

The Trust Equation

The Trust Equation is familiar to many of you, both regular and even occasional readers of this blog.  It’s a formula for measuring our own trustworthiness through the Trust Quotient assessment.

For many people, Intimacy is the hardest piece of this simple formula to grasp and to put into practice.

Deconstructing Intimacy

We look at Intimacy in business relationships as having three components:

  • Discretion – the wisdom to know what to do with information another shares with us
  • Empathy – the ability to see another person’s point of view from the inside out; to identify with another person’s feelings, and
  • Risk-taking – vulnerability

The first two are about the other person: safeguarding their sharing, picking up on their feelings and acting appropriately.

The last one – risk taking – is about you.

The “I” Part

The “I” part of intimacy means opening yourself up to the other person.  It means becoming vulnerable.  It really is all about you, and the risks you’re willing to take.

We often get asked what Intimacy sounds like or looks like in business settings.  I would argue that it doesn’t require knowing the name of your client’s or colleague’s kiddos or pets (though for some people that works as Intimacy too), but rather saying or doing the thing that feels risky.

It may be as simple as asking for feedback, when you really don’t want to hear bad news:  “I don’t feel that I’m doing this job to your satisfaction.  Can we discuss it?”

It may be revealing something personal about yourself, perhaps saying at the start of a big presentation:  “Although I am completely convinced that our plan is a good one, I find myself a little intimidated talking to this senior group.”

It may be a matter of just voicing something you both know to be true:  “I believe your boss didn’t think we were the right supplier for this job, and you went out on a limb to get us approved.  What are your particular concerns?  How can we make you look good?”

The I in Risk, and in Trust

A good rule to remember about trust in business is that it’s generally not about you.  Except, of course, when it is. And when it comes to intimacy, it is about you.

In our White Paper we show with hard data that the “I” factor drives more trust than the other three.  And it is where risk shows up: taking the risk of Intimacy is what creates the reciprocal exchange that is trust.

If you’re lucky, your client or colleague or boss will lead by taking the first risk. If you don’t trust to luck, make some luck of your own. Take a risk. Lead with intimacy. Create some trust.

You can do that.

David Zinger, CEOs and Vulnerability

In his Zing-Review of March 3, employee engagement expert David Zinger cited research by the health care research firm Beryl on improving patient experiences in hospitals. The whole article is rich with references and research, though the title is a bit intimidating. David pulls from the final paragraph:

[The CEOs’] vulnerability is the first step in employee engagement. To decide on a “mission, vision and values” that truly reflects the [organizations’s] character, the CEO must sit down with staff from all levels to discuss improvements in culture. (from Becker’s Hospital Review, Feb 25, 2011)

Vulnerability and Intimacy

Vulnerability – openness, softness, exposure – is one of three key pieces of Intimacy as we define it. The first two, discretion and empathy, refer back to the other person in the relationship, how we treat them, but vulnerability sits squarely with us, how we treat ourselves.

Why is it so Hard?

Why is vulnerability, which conveys softness and openness, so darn hard in fact to put into practice?

Well, it starts with saying: “I don’t have all the answers.” Now, that’s terrifying! How will people respect me or my position?

And goes on to: “But I’m sure you have some ideas.” What if I don’t want to hear the things they have to say? What if they criticize me?

And concludes with: “Let’s put our heads together.” Yikes, and collaborate?

Like so many things in life, simple, but not easy.